"I'm working hard every day."
"I want to keep working step-by-step."
"I just need to keep working and keep going."
These are not quotes taken from the autobiography of a wildly successful personality well-versed with PR-speak. They are, instead, the first thoughts that came to Karen Khachanov's mind on three landmark occasions in his career: when he won his first title (at Chengdu in 2016), when he stood on the verge of qualifying for the NextGen Finals (in 2017), and when he won his second tour title (at Marseille earlier this year).
Maybe that's going to be his thing. Some players are associated with their trick shots, some with their endless stamina, still others with their racquet-smashing antics. With Khachanov, it's looking increasingly likely that the theme of his career is going to be 'work, work, work'.
Anyone who has witnessed the Russian's meteoric rise in the second half of 2018 would be flabbergasted by the 'how' of it all. How could he have taken his rough-around-the-edges, inconsistent power game all the way to a Masters final? How could he have gone from a giant player with limited potential to one of the leaders of the NextGen movement? How could he have gone one step further than Roger Federer and snagged a win against Novak Djokovic, a seemingly invincible foe?
It all comes down to that simple word: work. Khachanov has worked on his forehand, his movement, his defence, his consistency; he has put in the hard yards to become a player who doesn't just hit the cover off the ball, but also gets the extra ball back in play.
The first time I watched Khachanov play, back in the fall of 2016, I was struck by the power he could generate off his backhand, but wasn't convinced by the overall consistency of his game. He looked like a hulking specimen, but he didn't hit the spots with his serve often enough. And his movement was just what you'd expect from a 6'6" guy.
None of that stopped him from winning the 250 title in Chengdu just weeks later, which was everyone's first cue that he may be destined for something special.
My next serious look at Khachanov came at Halle in 2017, when he faced off against Federer in the semi-final. The Swiss was then still in the honeymoon period of his comeback, making tennis look like an effortless pastime of the artistically-inclined, so it was easy to overlook everything that was happening at the other side of the net. But one thing stood out: Khachanov was moving comfortably on the grass and could return many of Federer's big shots with interest.
Then came Roland Garros 2018, and his third round match against Lucas Pouille. This time, there was another change in Khachanov's game: he was now hitting all of his shots with considerably more topspin, which was both a positive and a negative. On one hand, he was far more consistent with his groundstrokes now, but on the other, it seemed he wasn't making full use of his height and raw strength. His shots weren't penetrating through the court quickly enough, even if they were falling in more often than not.
He still won that match and gave a good account of himself in his next round against Alexander Zverev. But the common thread through all those phases – the fall of 2016, the summer of 2017, and the spring of 2018 – was unmistakable: Khachanov was always striving to improve, to do something different.
The real eye-opener, however, was his mini-rivalry against Rafael Nadal in the summer of 2018.
First, a bit of context: back in 2017, there was considerable hype around the third-round match between Nadal and Khachanov at Wimbledon. But the Russian never really got a foothold in that encounter and bowed out in rather tame fashion.
He seemed determined to make amends in 2018, on the hard courts of North America.
After giving Nadal a scare in the first set of their Rogers Cup semifinal in early August, Khachanov loudly announced himself to the world a few weeks later with a show-stopping display in New York. He pushed Nadal to the absolute brink in the US Open third round, exchanging furious groundstrokes with the World No 1 for well over four lung-busting hours.
More than the sheer bombast of Khachanov's groundstrokes though, it was his resilient spirit that caught everyone's eye. He refused to throw in the towel till the very end and repeatedly pulled Nadal back from the doorstep of victory. It felt like he could hammer big serves and forehands all day if he had to.
"He's improving always," Nadal said about Khachanov after the match. "He is young. He has everything. He's a great player. He does a lot of good things. He has a great future to come."
The surest sign that a person is being dead serious is when he talks in short, matter-of-fact sentences. Nadal seemed convinced that Khachanov had everything in his game and attitude to succeed, and said as much in clear and unambiguous terms.
The Spaniard really was on to something. Khachanov used that loss as a springboard to refine his game even further, even if the big breakthrough eluded him for a while longer. He lost early in his next three tournaments, to a trio of respectable opponents – Stan Wawrinka in St. Petersburg, Juan Martin del Potro in Beijing and Stefanos Tsitsipas in Shanghai. But it was easy to see the progress he was making through those close matches.
He wasn't hitting with as much loopy topspin as he was at Roland Garros anymore. Now that he had acquired a good deal of control over his game, he was feeling confident enough to take more risks, and even approach the net behind some of his flatter missiles.
An attacking game always takes a little longer to come together than a counterpunching one and to Khachanov's credit he remained patient and stuck to his guns. So when it all did come together – this week in Paris – the success must have tasted even sweeter.
He looked like a man on a mission right from the start. After a couple of early round wins over Filip Krajinovic and Matthew Ebden, he saw off the dangerous John Isner with some incredible clutch play. While he wasted two match points in the second set, he hit the reset button and eventually out-served the best server in the world to steal the match in a deciding set tiebreaker.
In the quarters and semis he managed to impose his game on the proceedings in a way that completely demoralized Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem. Sure, Zverev was carrying an injury and Thiem is still finding his feet on indoor hard courts, but it was clear that their biggest weapons on the day were no match for Khachanov's forehand. He was particularly lethal with his second serve forehand return, giving them both almost no time to react to its pace and depth.
Even after all that though, we didn't give Khachanov much of a chance to upset Djokovic in the final. We applauded his impressive run of wins, and we were ready to record this as an honourable runner-up finish. But we hadn't accounted for his life mantra; we had forgotten that he was always willing to work his behind off, no questions asked.
Against Djokovic, Khachanov produced a stunning role reversal that left everyone lost for words. While he gave up an early break through a bunch of mistimed shots, he buckled down after that and became a model of consistency. Khachanov didn’t just overpower Djokovic in the high-quality first set; he even out-defended him.
Hard as that may be to believe, we know it is true because we saw it with our own eyes. Khachanov ran from side to side like a madman, retrieving all of Djokovic's perfectly controlled groundstrokes. He was here, there, everywhere – for once, it was the Serb who couldn't find a way to break through his opponent's defences and not the other way around. And when Djokovic rushed the net, Khachanov floored the Serb with a series of inch-perfect passes.
There was nothing that didn't work for Khachanov in the final; in addition to his dramatically improved movement, his power off the ground was also in full dazzling display. When he wasn't defending in Djokovic-esque fashion, he was swatting away forehand winners with ease, or hammering down aces that left his opponent flat-footed.
Djokovic ran out of gas in the second set, which is not a surprise considering the length of the match he had played less than 24 hours ago. But against any other opponent, he might have still pulled out the win. It's just that when you play close to your best and still end up losing a set, you tend to lose motivation for the rest of the match.
Khachanov's play in that first set was so good, it robbed even the ultimate fighter of the will to fight.
"It means the world to me," Khachanov said on winning the biggest title of his career till date. "I couldn't be happier to finish the season like this."
He's certainly finishing the season much better than most of the other up-and-coming ATP players. Khachanov has been trudging through the shadows the last couple of years, with flashier guys like Stefanos Tsitsipas, Denis Shapovalov and Alexander Zverev occupying the spotlight. But by making continuous improvements to his game, and by instilling within himself an unshakeable love for the grind, the Russian has brought himself to the head of the class.
Khachanov may not always play the kind of flawless tennis that he did against Djokovic in Paris. But we know that he will never stop "working hard" to keep producing performances like that. Because, you know, that's just his thing.
Updated Date: Nov 05, 2018 09:18 AM