Of the three tennis players from Russia currently ranked inside the top 20, it was Karen Khachanov, the least celebrated, who broke through before them all. He established himself by winning his first Masters 1000 title at the Paris Masters in November 2018, beating Novak Djokovic in the final. Instead of using the achievement as a career stepping stone, though, he languished. His peers soon passed him by.
It has been a long, difficult road back to relevance, but on Tuesday afternoon, Khachanov moved into his first Australian Open semi-final after Sebastian Korda retired with a wrist injury while Khachanov led 7-6(5), 6-3, 3-0. After reaching the semi-final of the US Open last year, it is Khachanov’s second consecutive grand slam semi-final.
With no grand slam champion in sight, and a massive opportunity for those who remain in the draw, the two players stepped onto Rod Laver Arena for one of the most significant matches of their lives. From the beginning, the greater experience of Khachanov instantly stood out. While Korda started the match with a poor service game, Khachanov served brilliantly early on, conceding only one point in his first four service games.
Although Khachanov failed to serve out the set at 5-4, the 26 year-old immediately reset as they reached a tiebreak. He pounded the vulnerable Korda forehand with pace and weight throughout, methodically breaking it down, and a tense, bruising set ended with Khachanov scrambling in defence before unloading a backhand down-the-line winner.
By the beginning of the second set, it was clear that Korda’s issues with his forehand were down to more than just tension. At 3-2, Korda took a medical timeout for his right wrist, with the trainer taping over his wrist and offering him some painkillers. Khachanov continued to break down the strike and he broke his serve for a 4-3 lead.
Korda’s last stand came in the following game as he generated two break points. Both times, Khachanov produced two enormous unreturned serves. He moved through the set and was typically professional and diligent until Korda decided to retire from the match early in the third set.
In recent years, as Rublev, 25, and Medvedev, 26, fully established themselves at the top of the game, Khachanov struggled with his mentality and a faulty forehand. He eventually fell out of the top 20 in February 2020 and remained there until last September after he reached his first grand slam semi-final.
While Khachanov may lack the pristine shotmaking and timing of young talents like Korda, he has built a sturdy game. A 6ft 6in, he pairs his big first serve with solid defence, high octane yet high percentage ballstriking and a great work rate. Despite his height and stature, he is as likely to outwork and grind down elite opponents as he is to hit them off the court.
His discipline and industriousness was most evident in the quarter-finals of last year’s US Open when he outlasted Nick Kyrgios in five tense sets, blunting Kyrgios’ flashy shotmaking to reach the semi-finals. In Australia, he will return to the same stage, this time hoping for more.