By Blair Henley
With 20-year-old German phenom Sascha Zverev monopolizing tennis headlines this summer, it’s been easy to forget about the second-highest ranked player in the ATP World Tour’s 21-and-under group of “Next Gen” athletes.
Here’s your reminder: Keep an eye on Karen Khachanov.
Standing a solid 6-foot-6, the 21-year-old from Moscow, Russia, has a physique made for tennis. It’s easy to assume he relies primarily on his booming serve to win matches, but he says he actually prefers the groundstroke grind of a slightly slower court. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that he had a breakthrough clay-court swing that propelled him to a career-high rank of No. 30 in the world this season.
Khachanov improved his consistency and fitness level in part by training in Barcelona – clay country – over the past three years, but he has his roots firmly planted in Russia. The son of two doctors, he grew up alongside other up-and-coming players like Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev. He idolized former world No. 1 Marat Safin as a child and vividly remembers watching from the stands as he clinched Russia’s last Davis Cup title in 2006.
“[I started playing] tennis just because my parents wanted me to try when I was young,” he said. “I played three or four times per week, then later when I became older, I decided to play tennis [full time].”
Ranked as high as No. 16 in the world in ITF junior play, he’s risen steadily up the professional ranks since turning pro in 2013. Last year at this time, he had just broken into the top 100. This year, he’ll likely be seeded at the US Open.
“I think there is always going to be pressure on every stage with the rankings, so you have to deal with it and that’s it,” he said. “When I was 150, I wanted to be 100. You always put pressure on yourself, and you have to try to deal with it and focus on what you have to do.”
Khachanov struggled to find consistency at the beginning of his 2017 season, at one point losing five straight matches. He found his rhythm in April when he made a run to the quarterfinals in Barcelona, notching his first top 10 win over David Goffin. He went on to make his first major fourth round appearance at Roland Garros, upsetting Tomas Berdych and John Isner along the way. When asked what he enjoys most about the game, he answered with a laugh: “Obviously, winning!”
Here at the Western & Southern Open, he has an opportunity to rack up a few more victories. When Roger Federer pulled out due to a back injury, Khachanov’s section of the draw opened up significantly. Instead of playing the No. 3 player in the world in the second round on Wednesday, he faced lucky loser Thomas Fabbiano, who took Federer’s slot in the draw. Khachanov will have a shot to make the quarterfinals when he faces 46th-ranked Yuichi Sugita of Japan on Thursday.
As a reward for his on-court success in 2017, Khachanov will compete in the first annual ATP Next-Gen Finals at season’s end, which will pit the top eight players under 21 against each other in Milan, Italy. While Khachanov appreciates the promotional aspect of the event, he’s focused squarely on his next match in Cincinnati.
“I’m happy for all the guys that they are doing well,” he said. “It’s good for tennis that the next generation is coming and rising up. I’m just trying to focus on myself and keep moving forward.”
Khachanov will likely be joined in Milan by two 20-year-old Americans who also advanced to the third round on Wednesday. Frances Tiafoe took out the red-hot Zverev in three sets, while Jared Donaldson ousted India’s Ramkumar Ramanathan.
It looks like the Next Gen is now.