What we learned: Karen comes of age

 - Kate Battersby

Khachanov downs childhood idol Del Potro to reach first Grand Slam quarter-final.

Karen Khachanov© Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

When Karen Khachanov was just entering his teens, Juan Martin del Potro was one of his idols. But at Roland-Garros 2019, that childhood perspective was left behind. As evening drew in on Court Suzanne-Lenglen, the ruthlessly unsentimental Russian No.10 seed ejected Del Potro 7-5, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in the fourth round.

Khachanov’s prize for his victory is two-fold. It earns him a place in his maiden Grand Slam quarter-final, where he will face last year's finalist Dominic Thiem; and it guarantees that Khachanov will pierce the top 10 for the first time when the new rankings are released next Monday.

After the 13-foot match - at 6'6", Khachanov was eye-to-eye with the famous Tower of Tandil - here’s what we learned from the Russian’s win.

He really likes Paris

Previously one of the Next Gen names, Khachanov’s big breakthrough came last November at the Paris Masters. A big hitter who moves surprisingly fast around the court, he shocked Top 10 occupants John Isner, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem; and then crowned that by crashing 31 winners past Novak Djokovic to snap the Serbian’s three-month 22-match winning streak for a stunning title win.

That triumph saw his ranking slingshot up to No.11, yet he has stalled ever since. Coming into Roland-Garros, little in his form indicated he was in line to go so deep into the tournament – and for the loss of just one set, to boot. Before this, he made the third round in Rome, but just the second in Madrid (Fernando Verdasco was his bogeyman in both), while he lost his opening matches at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Munich.

Now he is the first Russian into the last eight here since Mikhail Youzhny in 2010.

He looked completely comfortable

Maybe that wasn’t so surprising, as this was the third straight year Khachanov had reached the last 16 here, and he also had the experience of another Grand Slam fourth round to call on, at last year’s Wimbledon.

But then again, kudos to him – this was the first time Khachanov had defeated a top-10 player at a Grand Slam, having lost in all six of his previous attempts. The highest-ranked player he had previously defeated at a major was Tomas Berdych in the second round here two years ago. This win over Del Potro also snapped a five-match losing streak against top-10 opposition on clay; his sole previous success was against David Goffin in Barcelona in 2017.

Furthermore the Russian’s three previous meetings with Del Potro had brought him a net yield of just one set. But all those matches were on hard court.

A player must take chances against him

Del Potro had five break points in the super-tight first set, but did not convert any of them – not least because on two of those chances (both at 5-5) Khachanov aced his way out of trouble. Having absorbed that heat, one game later the Russian’s sole break point opportunity was also his first set point – and under pressure from the powerful Khachanov forehand, Del Potro crumbled.

Moreover, the Argentine could not regroup. As error after error poured from the Argentinian’s racquet, Khachanov snatched the first 11 points of the second chapter in a blur. Within eight minutes he led 3-0, and from then on its ownership was never in doubt.

Ironically, that was Khachanov’s own problem in the third set – he only took one of four chances to break, whereas Del Potro capitalised on the only two to come his way. But the competitive momentum was only slowed, not turned around. Despite his third set dip, Khachanov still won 75% of points on his first serve, with his fearsome forehand accounting for 25 of his 58 winners.

“I couldn't use the opportunities I had,” agreed Del Potro. “I didn't win any of my break points, and he, with one, won the first set. The second set was very fast. I couldn't fight back. He has very good physical shape, and he's able to load the ball, give a lot of power to it. In the third and fourth set, in these conditions, very few players can hit the ball so hard. Karen is one of these players.”

Khachanov a threat to Thiem

Khachanov’s quarter-final opponent will be Dominic Thiem. They have met just the once during the Russian’s sprint to the Paris Masters title. On that day – on indoor hard court, of course – Thiem could muster only five games. But five-set Grand Slam tennis is a different prospect, and by contrast with the debutant Khachanov, this will be the fourth successive year that Thiem has breathed the quarter-final air on the Paris clay.

Khachanov gave away little, saying: “right now honestly I'm still not thinking about it. I rather to take some rest. I will try to do my best against him. He's here three years in a row not less than semifinals. So for sure he's  one of the top ones on clay. But I will try to fight.”

Father to be

This will be the last tournament where Khachanov is cheered on by his wife Veronika Shkliaeva before the birth of their baby. “It’s not really stressful for her," Khachanov said. "But most likely Paris will be the last tournament and then she cannot travel. And we're expecting hopefully in September.”