It had not been a good start to the season for Karen Khachanov. The Russian, who has had chance after chance of breaking into the world’s top ten this year, arrived at the French Open with a miserable 10-12 record for the season. He had scored back-to-back wins just three times and had lost in his first outing at eight of the twelve tournaments he had entered. Understandably then, expectations of the world #11 were not high.
But so far, he has undeniably defied them. He began his campaign with an assured 6-1 6-1 6-4 win over Germany’s Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, playing at Roland Garros on a protected ranking. That set up a second-round clash with French wildcard Gregoire Barrere, riding high after upsetting Matthew Ebden in the first round. The two men were separated by 116 places in the world rankings, but it was not to prove a straightforward affair for Khachanov.
Though he took the first two sets, the second after a closely contested tiebreak, he lost his way completely in the third. Barrere won it without losing a game to the obvious delight of the French crowd and heading into the fourth set Khachanov looked to be in trouble. After all, he had precious few good results in 2019 to draw confidence from and plenty of painful, avoidable defeats to haunt him. But, digging in, he broke early. Barrere broke back almost immediately.
The match seemed to be turning against Khachanov. But then, at the crucial moment, he rediscovered his game and remembered that he was ranked 11th in the world for a reason. And Barrere perhaps grew nervous, the enormity of what he was trying to accomplish suddenly swamping him. Khachanov broke again, decisively, to seal a hard-fought 6-3 7-6 0-6 7-5 win and his place in the third round of the French Open for the third straight year.
It was clearly a much-needed win. He had stared defeat, indeed humiliation, in the face and emerged triumphant. Playing with a freedom conspicuously absent from his tussle with Barrere, he brushed aside Martin Klizan in straight sets, with his cause aided by the Slovakian having spent eight hours and 13 minutes on court to reach the last 32. Nonetheless, it was a confident performance from Khachanov, one that set him up well for a fourth-round contest with the Tower of Tandil, Juan Martin del Potro.
The French Open was just the fourth tournament of del Potro’s season after a knee fracture picked up at the Shanghai Masters had forced him onto the sidelines. But at the Italian Open, he had reached the quarterfinals and there held match points, before succumbing in three sets to world #1 Novak Djokovic. And he made a good start against Khachanov, forcing five break points in the first set. But he could take none of them. Khachanov, when his chance arrived in the twelfth game, would not show such mercy.
Having taken the opening set, Khachanov pressed his advantage. He won 13 points in a row to start the second, quickly taking a commanding 3-0 lead. The Argentine sought to restore parity, but his efforts were in vain. Khachanov kept his composure, using his big serve and forehand to keep del Potro pinned behind the baseline and on the move. He was also winning the battle of the backhands comfortably, repeatedly engaging in and emerging victorious from cross-court duels on that wing.
After an hour and 34 minutes of play, del Potro found himself staring into the abyss down two sets to love. But not for nothing was he crowned US Open champion in 2009. With the Suzanne-Lenglen crowd roaring him on, del Potro broke through early in the third. And though Khachanov responded by breaking back immediately, del Potro was clearly in the ascendancy. He broke again and this time there would be no escape for Khachanov as del Potro moved back within striking distance.
However, the effort of doing so had clearly all but drained his limited reserves of energy. Khachanov, meanwhile, looked fresh. But neither had much time as dusk drew across Paris. For the wearying del Potro that brought the promise of a night to regroup and recover. For Khachanov it provided some much-needed urgency. With a series of hammer blows, he seized back the momentum by breaking the del Potro serve to take an early lead in the fourth.
With del Potro reeling, he pressed hard to find the second break and more than once came to within a point of getting it. But his opponent, though on the ropes, was not in the dust yet and fought him off with some thunderous forehands. Unfortunately for del Potro and his numerous supporters, the sun was setting on his chances faster than it was on the Roland Garros grounds. Khachanov, unperturbed by his failure to secure the insurance break, remained untouchable on serve to complete a superb 7-5 6-3 3-6 6-3 win.
At the moment of his victory, sealed with an ace, the Russian sunk to his knees in delight, his first Grand Slam quarterfinal berth secured. There he will face 2018 runner-up Dominic Thiem, widely and rightly considered to be the third favourite for this year’s title behind defending champion Rafael Nadal and world #1 Novak Djokovic. The Austrian is in fine form and reached the quarterfinals with a commanding 6-4 6-4 6-2 win over the last Frenchman standing Gael Monfils.
Khachanov will go into that match the underdog. But he showed the full extent of his capabilities against del Potro, looking every inch the man that stunned Djokovic to win the Paris Masters title at the close of the 2018 season. It has been a long, hard road back to those heights for Khachanov in 2019. But make no mistake, he is renewed and he is dangerous. Don’t rule out another Russian surprise in the French capital.
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