It wasn’t supposed to end the way it did. After his thrilling three-set win over Roger Federer, incoming World #1 Novak Djokovic was expected to brush aside the challenge of Karen Khachanov, the unseeded young Russian making his debut in a Masters 1000 final. Djokovic, in contrast, had already won 32 Masters crowns and was riding a 22-match winning streak. Indeed, since his last defeat he had picked up titles in Cincinnati, New York, and Shanghai.
But none of that seemed to bother Khachanov who, despite going down an early break in the first set, stormed to a superb 7-5 6-4 victory over his more illustrious opponent. Djokovic, it must be said, was not at his best, the effects of his long drawn out battles with Federer in the semifinal and Marin Cilic in the round before having taken their toll, but he was still Novak Djokovic and he does not lose matches lightly.
But he found himself unable to rise to the challenge posed by Khachanov’s power. The 22-year-old struck 31 winners past the Serbian’s faltering defense, with his forehand a particularly potent weapon. But there was more to his performance than just big-hitting. He limited Djokovic to just 18 winners and won the majority of the longer rallies, coming out on top nine times when the rally lasted longer than nine shots, whilst Djokovic won just seven of those points.
His serving was also excellent. He limited Djokovic to five break points, all of which came in his first two service games, and he saved four of them. Khachanov also made 76% of his first serves and won the point 76% of the time behind it, as well as hitting nine aces and just two double faults. He even seemed to be moving better than Djokovic and more than once frustrated the 14-time Grand Slam champion’s attempts to hit through him with digs that the great Serbian would have been proud of.
In short, it was a performance that came close to touching perfection, the culmination of a week that also saw him beat three other top ten players in John Isner, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem. Khachanov himself may soon count himself amongst that elite number. He will be the world #11 when the rankings are released on Monday and without many points to defend in the first-half of 2019, it would not be a surprise to see him climb further still in the not too distant future.
But his mind will surely be on loftier matters than a top ten ranking. Khachanov had been something of a forgotten figure amongst the sudden influx of young talents, without the consistent success of Zverev or the flair and panache of the likes of Stefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovalov. Nor, in fairness, did he have their standout results to bolster his claim to a place under the spotlight, despite having won three titles and reached the fourth round at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, twice at the former.
But in the wake of this success, he can be relegated to the shadows no longer. Indeed, the issue for him moving forward will be how to deal with the pressure and expectations created by the spotlight. With no Russian man having won a Grand Slam since Marat Safin lifted the Australian Open in 2005, the pressure on Khachanov to deliver at one of the four Majors will be intense although, as Zverev’s travails at the Majors illustrate, success at Masters level is no guarantee of Grand Slam glory.
But Khachanov has looked comfortable on the big stage so far in his career and is yet to lose a final. He has also clearly been willing to do the work necessary to improve his game. No more evidence of that is needed than the 6-4 6-2 6-2 hammering Djokovic dealt him in their only previous meeting, which came earlier this year at Wimbledon. That match may have been won by a different, fresher Djokovic, but this one was won by a different, better Khachanov. And if he can continue to improve at such an impressive clip, then this will surely be just the first of many Khachanov triumphs.
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