Checkmate: Khachanov On Chess, LeBron James & A US Open First
Editor's Note: This story was first published on 3rd September 2022.
When Karen Khachanov was a kid, he did more than train to become a professional tennis player. The Moscow-native swam, played basketball and participated in athletics.
But from ages 10-11, he also attended chess class. Instead of blasting forehands and crushing backhands, Khachanov learned to outmanoeuvre opponents on a 64-square board, where no physical power or foot speed could help him.
“[In chess] you need to think all the time. You have 100 different combinations and variations with each move. It always depends which figure your opponent will move. There always has to be some tactics and for sure it’s a mental game as well,” Khachanov said. “You need to stay sometimes three, four hours in a competition if we’re talking about professional chess to sweat it out and try to think about one move [for] maybe 30 minutes.
“You break your head and that’s the really interesting part of the chess game.”
Some see Khachanov’s power from the baseline and miss the tactics he uses to position himself for his biggest shots. In a way, he believes all the thinking that goes into the sport makes it similar to chess.
“I think there are some similarities because you always think about what type of shot you can do, tactics are one of the most important things in tennis as well,” Khachanov said. “[It is about] where you place a shot, how hard, how high, percentage of the serves, where you’re going to stay, where you’re going to return and all those things. Of course they matter. It’s not that simple I would say, but there are some similarities.”
One of his coaches, Jose Manuel ‘Pepo’ Clavet, is also a chess fan. When they are together, they play two or three games per day.
"I think for him it is good to play chess because it is a good way to focus , really focus in one game for 30 [to] 35 minutes," Clavet said. "With every move you need to have a plan, like in a tennis match where you also need to be very focussed during the whole match, so I think it is good for him to play chess!"
Khachanov does not constantly follow professional chess tournaments, but he is familiar with the biggest stars in the chess world like Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura. He also watched The Queen’s Gambit, which he called “one of the nicest TV shows I remember on Netflix”.
“I think [I play chess] the same way I am in tennis,” Khachanov said, cracking a laugh. “I try to be the same way.”
Clavet added: "I think Karen plays chess in general as [he does] tennis. He is aggressive in both games! Obviously he plays better tennis than chess, but in both he likes to attack!"
Khachanov is also a basketball fan, who attends NBA games when he can, like he did earlier this year during the Miami Open presented by Itau. The 26-year-old was a big fan of the Miami Heat when he was younger, watching LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh lead the team to glory. He is a big fan of James, which has led him to follow the Los Angeles Lakers more closely, although he is still a Heat fan.
“I think the way he is, the mentality that he has in the sport, what he [has] achieved already. He’s one of the best athletes. Let’s say [he is like] Cristiano in soccer, Messi in soccer, him, Jordan… like Rafa, Novak and Roger in tennis,” Khachanov said. “He’s one of the best basketball players. I think the way he stays motivated and is still looking forward to play at his best and is still scoring the way that he does, it’s tough to explain sometimes.”
On the court, Khachanov has been one of the most consistent players on the circuit in recent years. Since August 2018, he has been lodged in the Top 35 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings without falling from that group.
“Sometimes you just look forward to being better. Sometimes you can be worse as well, so in a way I never look back and think I’m Top 20, Top 30, Top 35. I always look forward to achieving my goals and try to move forward,” Khachanov said. “I always think of how I can improve to rise up in the rankings, to be back in the Top 10. This is the ultimate goal I have. I’m working every day to try to find out what I need [to do], what I can do better.”
Khachanov reached his career-high of World No. 8 in July 2019 after winning the Rolex Paris Masters, an ATP Masters 1000 event, the November before.
“I always am thinking about New York. It’s one of my favourite Slams, I would say, especially Arthur Ashe Stadium. The match against Rafa that I played in 2018, the emotions, the adrenaline, it is one of the good ones to remember,” Khachanov said. “That’s why coming back to New York I always want to do well.”
It is performances like those that make Khachanov confident on court. The 27th seed still believes he can compete with anyone on his best day.
“That’s a very important thing, first of all to believe in yourself, to believe in your abilities, what you can do when you play at your best, where you can be and which players you can beat, how far you can go. That’s obviously one of the mental parts, [the] self-belief that you can do well,” Khachanov said. “You can go out there and still lose a match and there is no shame in losing it. It’s the belief that you can go deep and win it all. That’s what it takes and that’s a really important part of my game and tennis in general.”
To Khachanov, his game is like a puzzle made of components, with some related to his physical tools and others to the mental side of the sport.
“All those parts are really important to put together,” Khachanov said. “[With them] I can achieve what I’m dreaming of.”
The next step in achieving those dreams will be to defeat Montreal champion Pablo Carreno Busta on Sunday at Flushing Meadows.