· 22-year-old Karen Khachanov blasts to first Masters final and career-high ranking
· Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer lock horns for 47th time
· Djokovic edges Federer in three-hour, three-set thriller in pursuit of fifth Paris crown
Zverev won his first title in 2016, and went on to surge into the top 20 last year, and has been among the top five for most of 2018. But Khachanov, less than a year his senior, also won his first title in 2016, and was inside the top 30 in the summer of 2017.
It took him longer to consolidate his place at that level—a bigger man, but with at least as much potential as the German—but 2018 has brought the Russian into the foreground, not least with his resounding victory over a below-par Zverev in the quarter-finals of the Rolex Paris Masters.
From 45 at the start of the year, Khachanov won his home title in Moscow before Paris, and rose to a career-high 18, but he has gone on to ride that confidence to No13: Should he reach his biggest final, it would be No12, but to do so he would have to beat his third top-10 player in a row after Zverev and John Isner.
That third man was Dominic Thiem, who was into the World Tour Finals for the third time with his 53rd win of the year over defending Paris champion Jack Sock. He marked his first Major final this year at Roland Garros, and reached his second Masters final. Now he was in pursuit of a first Masters title, but faced not just Khachanov for the first time but, beyond that, either Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer.
There was nothing between the two men until the ninth game, not a break point in sight until Khachanov worked 0-40 against Thiem with a superb attacking rally. The Austrian saved two, but the Russian pummelled to the backhand corner to open the diagonal for a crushing forehand winner.
He had the break, but then faced two break-back points with some courageous returns of serve from Thiem. Khachanov saved the day with his big serve and a sixth volley, forcing a 14th error from Thiem to take the lead, 6-4.
The Russian onslaught continued in the opening game of the second set. Khachanov moves very well for such a big man, and has enough touch to mix up spin and transition to the net. He broke immediately, but Thiem used his Wawrinka-like one-handed backhand to break straight back with a huge winner down that wing, 1-1, but not for long.
Khachanov pressured the Thiem serve again and broke, and this time followed up the full gamut of skills—a forehand winner here, a drop shot winner, and a hold to love with a deft pick-up volley, 3-1. Another volley finish brought another break chance, converted for 4-1, and the Russian did not look back as a weary Thiem ran out of ideas. A final break, and Khachanov was into his first Masters final, 6-1, after just 70 minutes.
How he could sit back and soak up the other Paris semi-final, the latest edition of one of the most played and compelling rivalries in tennis, a 47th meeting between two former Paris champions.
Yet despite more than a dozen years of probing and testing one another on every surface, at every Major, in all but one Masters, and in 18 finals, Djokovic and Federer had met only once in almost three years. Each had been forced off the tour for extended stretches between the summer of 2016 and spring this year, each undergoing surgery, but then first Federer, and then Djokovic, returned with a bang to win both Major and Masters titles, and reclaim the No1 ranking.
In that first meeting after so long, the ascending Djokovic beat Federer handily to win the Cincinnati Masters, and his surge of form continued until Paris, where he regained that No1 ranking, and came back to beat a top-flight Marin Cilic with his 30th win in 31 matches dating back to the start of Wimbledon.
In contrast with Djokovic’s dominant form since June, Federer had struggled to find his best through most of the summer, though that took a turn upwards with the Basel title last week. And his last-minute decision to join the Paris draw seemed to take some of the weight of expectation from his shoulders: He played better against Kei Nishikori in the quarters than he had in some time.
Yet that long-beckoning 100th title had proved elusive, and he had no illusions about the scale, at the age of 37, of taking on Djokovic, who had, since the Swiss turned 30, opened a significant head-to-head advantage that included a win in Paris-Bercy in 2013.
But this would be no Cincinnati repeat. The first set took an hour and 11 minutes, played through 104 points. There was little between them in the first seven games other than long, testing, often brilliant exchanges, but Federer came under heavy pressure in a 15-minute, 20-point eighth game in which the Swiss faced four break points. He survived: Not just an attacker but a defender too, and his next serve would be a love hold. They headed to tie-break.
There too there was little between them, Federer taking a serve advantage, 4-2, only for Djokovic to go 5-4. Two holds of serve and Federer had a set point, 6-5, but for once did not go for the kill, sliced a weak backhand into the net, and the Serb punished him. Djokovic grabbed the key point against serve, 7-6(8).
Djokovic looked for a quick steal to open the second set, but Federer resisted to hold. He then worked his first break point in the match, but Djokovic’s speed, athleticism, and tactical smartness—plus over 70 percent first serves—made the task near impossible.
Instead, they edged past two hours and towards a tie-break—except that Federer had other ideas. He stepped in on the Djokovic serve to earn two break points, converting the first with a blistering forehand winner, his 17th of the set, down the line: 7-5.
Again, Djokovic put his foot down at the start of the third set: two immediate break chances. Federer saved them in some style: two aces and a smash.
By 2-2, they were 100 points apiece, and both were now serving at a high level—each would lose just six points on first serve in this final set. Federer fought off 15-40 to hold in the ninth game, acing in the face of the 12th break point that Djokovic could not convert. It would be another tie-break.
This time, Djokovic jumped on the game, and Federer made only his second double fault of the match to give up two serves. He aced and volleyed his next two serves, but the damage was done. One final long rally drew one last error from Federer, 7-6(3), after more than three hours of sizzling tennis.
Djokovic summed up what had been one of the best contests of the year, one that was important in keeping the Serb’s momentum for the end-of-year No1 ranking into London, and important for Federer in lifting his match-level at just the right time.
Djokovic summed it up:
“Was the most spectacular match I’ve played this year, and one of the best I’ve ever played against him.”
There could be no better praise. A fresh Khachanov will fancy his chances in the final so soon after this marathon effort, but it will be at the O2 in London that fans hope for the next chapter in the special rivalry between Djokovic and Federer.
Important: During the course of the match, it was announced that Nishikori would replace Juan Martin del Potro in the main draw of the Nitto ATP Finals after the Argentine withdrew with knee injury.
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