French Open 2019: Karen Khachanov's win over Juan Martin del Potro shows he is finally unleashing full force of his forehand
You could be forgiven for thinking that the Karen Khachanov versus Juan Martin del Potro fourth round match at the French Open was the tennis version of a Godzilla-style war. Two strong men, both 6’6” tall and armed with bazooka forehands and mammoth serves, went hammer and tongs against each other for over three hours.
Karen Khachanov versus Juan Martin del Potro fourth round match at the French Open was the tennis version of a Godzilla-style war
Khachanov finally seemed to have realised that taking the ball early and going for winners regularly was a viable winning strategy for him
The 23-year-old is into his first ever Grand Slam quarter-final
The latest Godzilla movie has been earning widespread praise for being exactly what it was advertised as — a good old monster flick. There’s no pretence of plot layering or character development or deliberately slow dialogue; it’s all-out, no-holds-barred, brute-against-brute dueling, subtleties be damned.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the Karen Khachanov versus Juan Martin del Potro fourth round match at the French Open was the tennis version of a Godzilla-style war. Two strong men, both 6’6” tall and armed with bazooka forehands and mammoth serves, went hammer and tongs against each other for over three hours. It couldn’t possibly have been anything but a loud and booming cannon-fest.
Del Potro rarely, if ever, runs into players that can match his level of power, especially off the forehand side. But on this day, Khachanov was equal to the task. In fact, for a vast majority of the match, he actually outhit the Argentine both with the serve and off the ground. It was he who was more effective at blasting down-the-line backhand change-ups, at serving his way out of trouble, and most surprisingly, at pulling the trigger on the forehand.
The bully was, in effect, being bullied. How could this have happened?
The first five months of 2019 certainly didn’t suggest Khachanov was anywhere close to producing this kind of performance. As noted by this writer before the tournament, the Russian had been in free-fall since the start of the year, suffering a three-match losing streak AND a four-match losing streak in the space of two months. His win at the 2018 Paris Masters had started seeming like a distant and not-too-believable memory; the common consensus was that he would be lucky to win even a couple of matches at this year’s Roland Garros.
The problem, as many noted, was Khachanov’s newfound inability to finish points. Despite being so tall and possessing such impressive firepower in his groundstrokes, Khachanov kept getting dragged into grinding, protracted baseline exchanges. And by allowing his opponents to hang around in the rallies, he was giving them the chance to open up the court and make him hit shots from uncomfortable positions, thereby completely nullifying his strengths.
There may have been a strong empirical reason for this though. Khachanov’s win at the Paris Masters was built on a combination of power and defence. His take-down of Novak Djokovic, in particular, involved a fair bit of baseline grinding, which elicited a bunch of errors from the Serb and made many exclaim that the Russian had effectively out-Djokoviched Djokovic.
Why abandon a strategy that works? Well, a losing run as wretched as Khachanov’s is a pretty good reason. Aside from his two-tiebreaker loss to Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells and a three-set slugfest against Jaume Munar at Madrid, Khachanov just didn’t seem able to make any kind of impression on the court heading into the French Open. There was a crying need for a change.
There were glimpses of a change in that match against Munar. While Khachanov still struggled to put away an opponent he should ordinarily have little trouble against, he did unleash a string of forehand bombs that were uncharacteristic of his season. A few of them were, there’s no better way to put it, Del Potro-esque.
Khachanov finally seemed to have realised, if only for a few brief spurts, that taking the ball early and going for stone-cold winners regularly was a viable winning strategy for him.
Unfortunately for Del Potro, that realisation hit home in a big way during their fourth round match on Court Suzanne-Lenglen. Except for a brief period in the third set when Del Potro had nothing to lose and started whaling on the ball like a madman, Khachanov bossed the baseline rallies from start to finish. He hit 58 winners to just 35 unforced errors in the match, compared to 42 and 48 respectively for Del Potro. It’s hard to imagine anyone would have predicted such a dominant performance by the Russian.
It’s one thing to outhit a player like Munar, and quite another to do that to Del Potro. The Argentine’s forehand is widely regarded as one of the biggest in the world, if not the biggest, and to overpower him on that side requires an arsenal from another world.
That remains true even after this match. Khachanov doesn’t actually possess that kind of arsenal; nobody on earth does. So how did Khachanov manage to do it?
It was, ironically, his ability to grind. Khachanov’s defence helped him stay in rallies even when Del Potro was looking to take control, particularly with his inside-out forehand. Khachanov’s two-handed backhand can generate depth and pace even when the man is pushed way behind the baseline, and that allowed him to work his way back into the point and ultimately find an opening for a big forehand of his own.
That part of Khachanov’s play did remind us of his Paris win again. Just like the final of that tournament, Khachanov used his movement and consistency — unusually good for a player as tall as him — to great effect against Del Potro. Now we know that those things can still be assets if used in conjunction with his other, bigger weapons.
The key for Khachanov is to recognise when to dip into which well. Against a player like Del Potro, he had to alternate between unloading on his groundstrokes and biding his time when he was forced to defend. But against most other players, a player of Khachanov's gifts would be better-served by imposing his game at every opportunity and finishing points with authority.
He has started doing the latter more frequently, as evidenced by his first three matches in Paris, which is a great sign for his future, irrespective of what has happened in the first half of 2019. For now, the 23-year-old is into his first ever Grand Slam quarter-final, and you can bet he is mighty chuffed about it. “That’s what I’m working for, to live moments like this,” he said after the match. “When you win matches like this, you’re just happy. You’re just happy for all the efforts that you have done before, for all the matches that you played.”
Khachanov has certainly played a lot of matches lately, and has lost more than his fair share of them. But maybe it all makes sense in a way; a transition period is rarely full of fun and joy, and more often dotted with torture and despair.
If it was all building up to this, you have to think it was worth it — for both himself and the fans. Khachanov has his Grand Slam breakthrough, and we have our guaranteed source of entertainment.
Everybody loves a good old monster flick. Khachanov’s newfound willingness to unleash his forehand promises to give us many more of those.
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