By John Delong
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (July 24, 2017) – Karen Khachanov grew up in a house located next to a tennis center, and that led to him take up the game at an early age.
Now, the 21-year- old Russian continues to grow up right before our very eyes as he climbs up the ATP World Tour rankings.
He is a career-best No. 32 in the latest ATP World Tour rankings and second in the Race to Milan standings that determine the participants in the #NextGen ATP Finals in November. He’s also the highest ranked of an extremely talented trio of up-and- coming Russian players along with Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev.
“It feels great that all of us young Russian guys are rising up and coming through,” Khachanov said while making the third round at Wimbledon. “Hopefully in this year and next years we will try to be higher and bring Russian tennis back to the highest position. Our success is coming from the work we are doing, all of us. Just improving, trying to get better. I think everybody has a good team, so we just have to keep focus.”
The 6-6, 194-pounder is already drawing comparisons to another Russian, Marat Safin, because of his size and power.
“I have a big serve and my style of game is to play more aggressive,” Khachanov said. “The backhand down the line is my favorite shot, and also running around my forehand. In general, it’s aggressive.”
Brad Gilbert, who once again will be a part of ESPN’s coverage of the Winston-Salem Open, says that Khachanov may wind up being the best of any of the #NextGen stars, and that includes World No. 11 Alexander Zverev.
“I call him Silent K,” Gilbert said. “He’s 6-6 and is a tremendous mover for an athlete that size. I think of all the #NextGen guys, he might have the most talent of anybody. His upside is huge. He has a big, explosive game. Kind of reminds me of Safin a little bit.”
Khachanov won five Challenger and two Futures titles as he worked his way up to the ATP World
Tour. He then made his first big impact by winning a 250 event in Chengdu last fall, beating Feliciano Lopez, Viktor Troicki and Albert Ramos-Vinolas along the way.
His recent tear started during the clay court season and has continued ever since.
He reached the quarterfinals at Barcelona with match wins over David Goffin and Pablo Cuevas. Then he reached the fourth round at Roland Garros, beating two-time WSO champion John Isner and Tomas Berdych in the process before losing to Andy Murray.
The success continued on grass as he reached the semifinals at Halle with wins over Gilles Simon and Kei Nishikori before losing to Roger Federer. Then he made it to the third round at Wimbledon before losing to Rafael Nadal on Centre Court.
Going up against the likes of Federer, Murray and Nadal have been great for the growing process even if he did lose the matches.
“It’s great experience,” Khachanov said. “They are three different players, three different styles of play, so it’s a great experience to play against top guys in all three tournaments like in the deeper stage. Fourth round of Roland Garros, semifinal of Halle, third round at Wimbledon. Just motivated for the next tournaments to get better.”
He says he gained just as much from his victory over Isner in Paris.
“I learned I had to be focused all the time in matches like that,” he said. “If you lose one serve, maybe you are one set down. I had to be focused all the time and to take my serves and then on return to try to return, to make returns in play and to risk sometimes. I had to do this. Otherwise, I would lose my serve.”
Khachanov acknowledges the budding rivalry with Zverev to be the highest-ranked #NextGen player, but he says it’s a friendly rivalry that will bring out the best in both players.
“I’m happy for him,” Khachanov said. “I already congratulated him with past results. I think it motivates us to work even harder. I’m seeing it in the other younger guys as well. We are looking to each other and support each other. It helps for us, gives us extra motivation and encourages us.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Winston-Salem Open has showcased great up-and- coming players throughout its history from Kei Nishikori to Grigor Dimitrov to Jack Sock to David Goffin. The trend is sure to continue this year with a large group of #NextGen players jockeying for position in the ATP World Tour’s Race to Milan. This is the sixth in a series featuring #NextGen players who could be on hand for the seventh-annual WSO Aug. 19-26.