Who Needs Hype When You Have Karen Khachanov?
Unseeded 22 year old Karen Khachanov defeated the then imminent world No.1 Novak Djokovic in the Paris-Bercy final 7-5, 6-4. Who needs hype when we have such a promising player?
The first big final of a player’s career is an important moment. The walk on to the court a sweet moment, a time to revel in a quiet sense of achievement before the elation or deflation that is to come. That moment is not quiet anymore though, not in Paris-Bercy anyway. Flashing lights against a dark backdrop, loud music drowning out excited pre-match murmur, WWF style announcements of the players just in case you did not know why they were. You would forgive a young gun for firing blanks after such a stage fright aggravating build up.
Karen Khachanov does not want our forgiveness, though. This unassuming and quietly confident young man wants nothing from us other than the minimum he could expect as a performer and a next big thing- a little courteous applause for what he can give, which is plenty. The Russian can take plenty, too, surviving, in the early stages of the match, the relentless pressure Djokovic brings to the big finals. The Russian fought off break points in his first service game and then again at 1-2, finally caving in on the seventh to go down 1-3 to the tune of a roaring Djokovic.
Caving in, that’s par for the course it seems nowadays when the younger players face the vets in these finals, unless they catch them out of form and/or injured. But, there was something different about this time. First, the Djokovic roar seemed a little out of place at such an early stage in a match versus an unseeded player with a 6-16 record versus the top ten. Three of those wins, though, had come on the way to the final, and this Djokovic, while on a match winning streak of 22, had a cold and was coming in off the back off as big a match as it gets outside of a final, a three set, a third set tiebreaker no less, win over Roger Federer.
Khachanov quietened that roar in the next game, breaking back for 2-3.
What followed was a balanced and engaging contest between a veteran and a next gen player with different styles- Khachanov’s ballstriking (Safin 2.0 some say) and power versus Djokovic’s careful construction work. At 5-5, the balance tipped Khachanov’s way when he broke the Djokovic serve and let out a roar of his own. This cry was anything but strange. Unseeded, in his first ATP 1000 final versus a wounded soon to be No.1, the Russian had the opportunity all the talent, hard work and focus had brought him. He did not let himself down either, serving out to take the first set 7-5.
Still, plenty of players have taken Djokovic to the extremes when he has been under the weather or tired out and then backed off, or been thrown off the scent. At least we had, whatever was to happen, a little more of a glimpse of the promise Khachanov offered in such matches. Promise we had seen in the US Open third round versus Nadal when the Russian was still feeling his way around big matches, grappling a little in the dark at vital moments. This time, however, the Russian was not into just giving off glimpses of his potential; he could see only all too clearly now. This final was about delivering ball-striking with precision, depth and shape, about vision and believing. The 22 year old did not let up, breaking Djokiovic early in the second set and then seeing his promise all the way through, taking the match 7-5, 6-4 and the Paris Rolex Masters title, the fourth trophy of his career.
In his speech, Khachanov said what an honor it was to play Djokovic in such a match and that he hoped to match his impressive numbers one day. Such ambition is admirable and, it would appear, warranted. How far ahead fans should look, however, is another thing. Having been burned by hype, proclaiming the next big thing more often than not, it’s wise to proceed with cation. Paris has a history as the venue for a few career peaks- David Ferrer’s lone ATP 1000 title, Jerzy Janowicz’s run to the final, Jack Sock’s career high last season. (Sock is now ranked outside the top 100). The tournament is a good one for a player with some form to catch a few tired and off their game vets and elite players.
At the same time, Bercy has also been the site of some of the game’s best ball strikers teeing off in indoor conditions- Safin and Agassi to name two prime examples- and some all time greats showing how season long stamina and dominance is done- Federer and Djokovic.
Where Khachanov will land on that spectrum is unknown. But watching him take that first step on his journey at the top of the game was a real ride. One with a noisy start, a thrilling middle, and a hopeful ending. No need for hype- we will always have, whatever happens, Karen Khachanov at Paris-Bercy ’18.
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