As was the case with Aryna Sabalenka on Friday at the Australian Open, Karen Khachanov simply ran into a better player who displayed better form. It is hard — and moreover, inadvisable — to carry big regrets from a match in which an opponent was plainly superior. That’s a very different outcome from losing a match the way Fernando Verdasco lost to Marin Cilic, or how Julia Goerges lost in round one against Danielle Collins (after serving for the match and having 30-love, only to falter).
Khachanov must look at his loss to Roberto Bautista Agut and calmly map out how he must improve, after his hype train for 2019 was derailed by the in-form Spaniard. Khachanov will look at this match and identify the areas in which he can make tangible, measurable improvements in his strokes and his patterns, but the less easy part of the equation for him — and other tennis players as they try to evolve — is to learn how to defuse a hot player.
In so many ways, that is the central challenge for very good second-tier players, those who reside just a cut below the sport’s elite: to learn how to take an opponent out of his comfort zone and shift the flow of a match.
The reality of facing an in-form opponent is oppressive enough. All other things being relatively equal, any opponent playing at the top of his game is a tough matchup. No one cares if a No. 40-ranked player is inconsistent on a general level; if that player is cracking the ball and floating above the clouds, it’s a pain in the neck for a top-five opponent.
The masters of tennis find a way to snap the red-lining challenger out of his magic spell and into a more ordinary and vulnerable state. They survive the onslaught and limit its damages. Then they pounce.
For some players, this means focusing on playing an extra ball. For others, this means dramatically changing pace or spin. For still others, a variation in tactics — such as the use of net rushes after not using them previously, or a wave of drop shots to uproot the opponent from a comfortable baseline position — is the best tool to make an in-form opponent overthink and lose that “zen state” of perfect flow and equilibrium which produces A-plus tennis.
This is part of the mystery of providing resistance as a tennis player: It is not always reduced to one thing. It takes time to learn how various players can be awakened from their zen state. It takes time on tour to learn these more subtle secrets.
More particularly for Khachanov and other young players in his position: It takes time to make the subtle distinction between a match in which tactics were wrong and a match in which tactics were inadequate.
“Wrong” tactics play into and feed an opponent’s strengths. “Inadequate” tactics might mean the inability to deal with a surging opponent who had an answer for everything. One should not confuse the two. You can have a good plan and approach yet still lose. You can also have a bad plan and still win due to talent and shotmaking. Every player needs the right tactics when an opponent establishes good form and a measure of superiority. It takes time to realize when one’s tactics — conceptually sound but inadequate in relationship to a given match — require more refinement and development. Understanding the gap between tactics that make sense on paper and tactics which more fully meet the needs of a difficult situation is what Bautista Agut might have taught Khachanov on Friday.
Khachanov doesn’t need to be hard on himself. He just needs to learn… and understand that the learning process might not be as swift as his Bercy championship might have first suggested.
Pundits need to be patient with Karen Khachanov. He needs to be patient with himself more than anyone — or anything — else.