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“I improved a lot my mentality and my self belief” – Why Karen Khachanov has been a different player since last summer

Karen Khachanov has been putting up eye-opening results since last year’s US Open. The Russian chalks it up to his mental toughness.

Karen Khachanov, Miami 2023 Karen Khachanov, Miami 2023 | © Ai / Reuters / Panoramic

When Karen Khachanov stormed to the Paris title in 2018, defeating Novak Djokovic in the final for his first Masters 1000 title, many believed he’d be a long-term fixture inside the ATP’s top 10 and a future Grand Slam champion.

It hasn’t exactly panned out that way, as Khachanov has struggled to meet the lofty expectations he set for himself – he topped out at No 8 in the ATP rankings in October of 2019 and hasn’t been in the top 10 since. In fact, during most of the last three seasons Khachanov has been outside of the top 20 while he has struggled to defeat elite talent.

The Russian lost 23 consecutive matches against the top 10, an unenviable streak that finally ended this week in Miami when Khachanov toppled No 2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas to reach the quarter-finals in Miami.

He followed that win up with a smooth takedown of Argentina’s Francisco Cerundolo to reach the semi-finals and set a date with Daniil Medvedev on Friday.

It’s the latest in a string of eye-opening results that has Khachanov heading back in the direction of the top 10 and emerging – once again – as a player with a great deal of upside.

Khachanov has reached three massive semi-finals since last summer, at the US Open, the Australian Open and Miami, proving that he’s figuring out how to play elite level tennis once again, but how?

Mentality and self-belief – the cornerstones of Khachanov’s rise

It’s not about any particular stroke, or being in better physical shape for Khachanov. For the 26-year-old Russian, winning is all about maturity and professionalism these days. The Moscow native is putting his experience to work and learning how to win when he’s not playing his best.

“I’ve been saying a lot that I think I improved a lot my mentality and my self belief,” he said on Thursday after taking out Cerundolo, 6-3, 6-2. “I don’t depend on daily feelings, the way I’m hitting, so I am just really enjoying the process itself, enjoying the practices and the matches.”

The smile on Khachanov’s face after his win on Wednesday says it all. He’s playing free and happy to be thriving.

“I just tried to take it a little bit differently, and I think I’m improving that way,” Khachanov said, “and the results, they kind of speak by itself. I’m just happy that it’s paying off and I just want to continue playing and kind of approaching the same way.”

Karen Khachanov, US Open 2022
Karen Khachanov, US Open 2022 | © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

Medvedev next – and old-school battle with a longtime friend

Khachanov’s confidence will be put to the test against one of the hottest players in the sport at the moment: Daniil Medvedev. The Russian has won 21 of his last 22 matches and enters Friday’s showdown with his compatriot carrying a 3-1 record in the pair’s head-to-head.

Khachanov says he has no problem drawing the line on the friendship once the pair take the court.

“We grew up together and every time Daniil plays against Andrey or I play against Andrey or I play against Daniil, It’s never easy, obviously,” he said. “Because from one side we know each other pretty well. And we are good friends outside the court, but on the court we are rivals. We played this year in Adelaide, like the first tournament of the year, he beat me, I would say, pretty solid, and I just will try to approach it differently this match and let’s see how it goes this time.” 

Medvedev became “a much more consistent and better player”

The current world No 16 knows that Medvedev is about as world-class as they come, but he feels good about the way he matched up with him earlier this season, even if he did lose in straight sets.

“I would say both of us have improved,” he said, referring to years since he last defeated Medvedev, in 2018. “He’s been playing a high level of tennis consecutively during [recent] years and I really think honestly it’s different, the way he was playing then compared to now, he can also attack, he can do more things. He became a much more consistent and better player.

“But at the end of the day we played this year in Adelaide at the beginning of the year. He won a solid match but I felt pretty good. I felt like okay, my level is there, even though I lost 6-3, 6-3. At the end of the day every match is a different scenario. You can win and you can lose and you go out there with a good mindset and that’s it.” 

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