With New Mindset, Khachanov Has Sights Set On A Slam Title
Last September, all eyes were on Carlos Alcaraz in New York as he hoisted the US Open trophy to the sky. Elsewhere, Karen Khachanov was taking in a moment that could well have belonged to him. In this relentless sport, where everything happens at breakneck speed, achievements are sometimes quickly forgotten or undervalued. But Khachanov was just two sets away from contesting his first major final that fortnight.
That same player now wears a broad grin on his face as he strolls through the corridors of Melbourne Park, where another chance at history has come knocking. The towering, 6-foot-6 player has deployed his furious style of tennis with undeniable confidence under the Australian sun to reach a second straight semi-final at a Grand Slam.
The sweet moment in the career of the World No. 20 has come in the company of Jose Manuel ‘Pepo’ Clavet, one of the most renowned coaches in Spanish tennis. With over 30 years of experience fine-tuning the talent on Tour, names such as Feliciano Lóopez, Alex Corretja and Carlos Moya have all spent time under his watchful eye.
The Madrid native has been in Khachanov's corner since 2020. His student is on a promising trajectory and is now set to do something big at the Australian Open. Since teaming up, they have made the second week of every Grand Slam at least once — a trait of a truly elite player. They won the silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics and have set themselves one clear goal: to take Khachanov back into the Top 10, where he has not been for more than three years.
“The key to being in the semi-finals of consecutive Grand Slams has been confidence,” explains Clavet from Melbourne. “It’s very important for all players, but in such a temperamental player like Karen, with ups and downs, it’s key. Now, he’s on a high and he’s a very dangerous player. The US Open semi-final gave him a lot of confidence. Now, he’s back to his best in Australia. We’ll see if he continues to play as he has so far on Friday to book a place in the final on Sunday. Why not?”
Since joining forces with Clavet, Khachanov has made psychology a priority. The former World No. 8 has given his thoughts a central place in his preparations, working closely with a sports psychologist. His coach, with whom he started work at 24 years of age, has also attended some of these sessions in order to understand how to break through some of his understudy’s self-imposed barriers to progression.
His performances in Melbourne leave no room for doubt: Khachanov has kept his head in his five outings, demonstrating his increasing mental toughness. The 26-year-old has played his best tennis at key moments in Australia, where he has won all four tie-breaks he's played. Nobody has managed to take him to five sets; the only other player who can lay claim to that is Novak Djokovic.
“We’re working on the consistency of his game. We want it to be more constant throughout the year,” explains Clavet. “He has played well in certain tournaments for some time, reaching the quarters at Wimbledon, silver medal at the Olympics... but to reach the top of the [Pepperstone ATP Rankings] you need to play very well for many weeks of the year. We’re trying to instill that consistency in him. Also, we’re working a lot on improving his net game. Given the power he has from the baseline, we’d like him to be able to finish more points off at the net.”
While they go about adding extra weapons to Karen’s game, Clavet speaks of Khachanov’s joy in their work, as he attempts to guide this extrovert character to greater success. The Spanish coach’s easy-going nature is one of his biggest selling points and he is confident they have found the balance Khachanov has been searching for throughout his career. With peace of mind, the limit for his hard-working student is very high indeed.
“He has the ability to do anything,” Clavet notes. “He is very aggressive from the baseline, he serves very well. For his height he has great mobility. The net is the part he still has to improve, but it’s not that he’s bad there. What makes me proudest is how complete his game is.
“And of course, he dreams of lifting a Grand Slam. Players are like that, in a way they have the right to hope they’ll do it. Karen has been in the quarters at Wimbledon and Roland Garros, he’s reached the semis at the US Open and now the Australian Open. He is two matches away. Why not? He’s won five and there are two left. You always have to think positive. He is doing that now and I’m sure he dreams of it.”
To break through that wall, he will have to overcome a personal challenge. In the semi-finals on Friday he will meet Stefanos Tsitsipas, a player bidding to become World No. 1 at the end of the tournament. The Greek, who leads their ATP Head2Head 5-0, is the embodiment of the consistency Khachanov aspires to — a perfect mirror on the big stage.
“The match against Tsitsipas will be difficult,” warns Clavet. “In a Grand Slam semi-final, all players are difficult. He’s never beaten him, but he’s been close several times. I believe in Karen, when he has that confidence, he’s a very dangerous player who can beat anyone. I believe in his chances on Friday.”