He had attempted to make his return to the tour at the Australian Open after six months away, but in the end, he was forced to have minor surgery. Perhaps no surprise, then, that he lost in the first round of both Indian Wells and Miami, and would win just three matches in his next three tournaments.
But come Rome, come the first signs of a return to form—he made the semis—followed by the quarters at Roland Garros, though he was livid that he had not done better.
On the grass, and ranked 22, the Djokovic season would pick up where it had left off in 2016 when he completed his set of Grand Slam titles at the French Open.
There was another element to this gradual rise in form: the return to his confidence. And that was surely due in no small part to reuniting with the old coach, Marian Vajda, after a year exploring other avenues. Here was the tried and trusted team that had supported his journey to the very top, and it proved to be a weight lifted from Djokovic’s shoulders.
The rest is history: the titles at Wimbledon and the US Open, the complete set of Masters titles in Cincinnati, the reclamation of the No1 ranking—from outside the top 20 just four months before—plus the Shanghai Masters and now, in Paris, another final after a stunning win over his great rival, Roger Federer, in a three-hour, three-set thriller.
It took the Serb to 31-1 since Wimbledon, a run that even his greatest fans could barely have dreamed of, and now he was after his fifth Rolex Paris Masters title. There were few who anticipated anything other than another win.
But again, cast the mind back to the start of 2018 and a 21-year-old Russian, ranked just inside the top 50, and trying to build on the precocious talent that had won him a first title at just turned 20 in Chengdu: Karen Khachanov.
Month by month, the strapping 6ft 6in player was evolving both physically and tactically, building an all-court game around his big serve and forehand, and he picked up his second title in Marseille
The clay proved less profitable, though he was part of one of the highlights of Roland Garros in a five-set defeat by Alexander Zverev in the fourth round. At Wimbledon, he faced Djokovic for the first time, also falling in the fourth round, and went on to make his first Masters semi in Toronto.
He impressed again at the US Open in a four-and-a-half-hour loss to Rafael Nadal, and came to Paris-Bercy with the Moscow title in his back pocket, ranked 18.
On the indoor hard courts of Paris, he went from strength to strength, downing three seeds—John Isner, Zverev and Dominic Thiem—to make his first Masters final, and a ranking of 12. And he had the look of someone who believed he could go all the way.
Djokovic set the early tone with an opening ace and held with ease. Not to be outdone, Khachanov opened in similar fashion. And looking at their stats as they came into this final, there was not a hair’s breadth between them when it came to serving success: Djokovic 20 aces, Khachanov 23; First serve percentage, 63 and 65 percent; Second serve points won, 64 and 63 percent; Service games won, 91 percent for both.
Now the famed serving of Djokovic worked a break point, ably saved with some bold play from the Russian. But in the fourth game, two over-enthusiastic forehands and then a smash into the net by Khachanov, and Djokovic had the break at the third attempt. He roared to his box as though he had won the set: He knew how important it was to make an early statement after such a long, gruelling test the day before.
Djokovic made just two errors, Khachanov 10 after 20 minutes of play, but that was about to change. Three errors from Djokovic and the Russian had broken back and then held to love, 3-3.
Khachanov had clearly shaken off any nerves, and notched up 10 straight points with a running forehand winner before Djokovic stemmed the flow to hold a seven-and-a-half-minute game.
Djokovic has looked like superman since the summer, but two three-setters in a row—he was tested by Marin Cilic in the quarters—plus a head cold began to look as though they were sapping his powers. Khachanov continued to serve strongly, defended remarkably well for such a big man, raced into the net to take on drop-shots, and got the break for a 6-5 lead.
It was not the best time for the Russian to serve a first double fault, or to net an easy forehand, as he showed his first signs of nerves, but he shook them off. Two big forehand winners and a big closing serve nabbed the set 7-5, 18 winners to five, six net points to one by his opponent. One hour and one set down, then: how many to go?
Khachanov looked just as assured at the start of the second set, breaking at the third attempt after pulling off a forehand pass and then a chipped return at Djokovic’s feet, 2-1. An ace closed out an easy hold, and Djokovic would have to summon up something special to halt the juggernaut: He did, a love hold.
He did so again to save three break points and hold for 3-4, but Khachanov showed little weakness in producing a love hold with an ace, in what was becoming a powerhouse performance sprinkled with some deft touch and smart shot-building.
And he would make no mistakes in serving out this hugely significant win, 6-4, for the perfect conclusion to a breakthrough year that will take him to No11 in the ranks and the race. And that will take him past fellow breakthrough colleague, 21-year-old Borna Coric, to fill the second ‘alternate’ spot at the Nitto ATP Finals.
The Russian advances will not stop here, of that there seems little doubt. Khachanov combines a complete all-round game with a clear focus, intelligence, and a great work-ethic. Stir into the mix a strong family foundation—his family was courtside for this important step in his career, and his wife of almost two years was surely cheering from home—and a healthy ambition, and the Russian will be a force to be reckoned with.
And he said all the right things:
“It means the world to me… To win the last Masters of the year against Novak Djokovic, the world No1, needs no explanation… I will have the same goals next season—to finish as high as possible, to try and improve day by day, to be competing against guys like Novak in the biggest tournaments more consistently.
“Novak, you are an inspiration to a lot of the players and truly a champion of our sport, and I was really proud to share the court with you.”
But he concluded:
“I hope one day we can catch Novak in what he is achieving. It will be difficult, but I will try.”
And if that is not ambition about a 14-time Major champion, a 32-time Masters champion and the new No1, nothing is.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge