Halle 2017: Khachanov and Rublev take on age and experience… and win to set #NextGen showdown
Andrey Rublev will take on Karen Khachanov in the quarter-finals of the Gerry Weber Open in Halle on Friday
It has become commonplace, this flexing of the muscles by the older men on the ATP tour. For a start, the top five in the world range from 30 to 35 and own all but two of the Grand Slam titles through the last decade.
Expand the search to the top 30 and are nine more men stretching the age up to 38. Some have even been enjoying career-high ranks and results, the likes of Gilles Muller, who won his first two titles this year, aged 34. Pablo Cuevas won all six titles from all nine of his finals after 2014, and broke the top 20 for the first time late last year. He is 31.
Even in the Race to London, it is this year’s big achievers who lead proceedings: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have won both Majors and four Masters between them, and the latter did not even play the two-month clay swing.
At the Gerry Weber Open, there were already two over-30s into the quarter-finals, and the top half of the draw boasted three more ready to try their luck at doing the same. Federer, eight-time champion here, stood top of the pile, ready to take on a 29-year-old in Mischa Zverev, also enjoying a career-high after injury set-backs in his early 20s.
There was defending champion Florian Mayer, age 33 and down at 134 after an illness and injury blighted season. He would play the No6 seed Lucas Pouille, a man a decade his junior, and one of the most promising players among the 1990s generation. What’s more, he arrived in Halle on the back of winning the Stuttgart title.
Also on the list was former finalist and former top-10 Mikhail Youzhny, and despite his 34 years and having come through a 3hr 35mins marathon to qualify for the main draw, he still managed to down Ivo Karlovic in two sets to reach the second round.
But scattered among these veterans and champions, a secondary thread had intertwined its way through, a thread that may end up at the ATP’s #NextGen championships in Milan the week before the World Tour Finals.
Three of the men currently jostling for places among the elite eight aged 21 and under had made it not just into the main draw but into the second round.
One of them, the best of them, was super-star 20-year-old Sascha Zverev, who broke into the main tour’s top 10 last month with his first Masters title in Rome. He was a finalist here last year, made the semis on the grass of s-Hertogenbosch last week, and already owned four titles from six finals. He had powered through two rounds and two not inconsiderable opponents with little trouble to reach the quarters.
But the top half of the draw boasted two more Milan hopefuls, both Russian, both tipped for great things: Andrey Rublev and Karen Khachanov.
The 19-year-old Andrey Rublev was a junior French Open champion, but his experience on the senior tour until this year was slight—though there was certainly some success at Challengers, and this year he won his first Major match to reach the second round of the Australian Open.
Gradually, the youthful and very slender Russian, whose 6ft 2in frame is capped by a mop of blond hair, was edging close to the top 100, and with his first win here, taking out No8 seed Albert Ramos-Vinolas, he assured that breakthrough.
Now he was aiming to make his first main-tour quarter-final, and he had to play Youzhny, who he afterwards admitted he had looked up to when he first began playing. And young man got the upper hand very quickly: 6-0. But the veteran, a two-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, found his serve in the second set, earned one break, and saved break points to hold for the set, 6-3.
The young player, clearly much fresher in the punishing conditions of 35-degree heat and high humidity, managed the only break in the third set for a very significant win, 6-3.
What then did he think of reaching his first important quarter-final and of making what will be at least 92 in the ranks next week?
“I expected maybe a 100 a little bit earlier, but really happy that I make it now. Really happy to make the quarter-final in such a great tournament. I just need to work harder now.”
And what of playing on grass—and this is his first senior tournament on the surface?
“I don’t know yet which is my favourite surface. But Mischa [Youzhny] was playing on one of his best surfaces, so if I beat him here it means I can also play on grass.”
He has a good point: His lively and varied style of play could suit grass very well, something that will be tested by his next match—against fellow #NextGen contender, Khachanov
The big-hitting Russian stands between Zverev and Rublev at a current career-high No38 after his first fourth-round run at a Major at Roland Garros. He beat the likes of Tomas Berdych and John Isner, too, and his confidence seems to grow with every passing month. If Rublev looks younger than his years, Khachanov looks like a man well used to this level.
He faced a tough match against No3 seed Kei Nishikori, but although he had no senior tour experience on grass, his big serving and heavyweight baseline game should have made good inroads. In the early goings, however, he struggled to land his first serve and was punished.
He faced deuce in both opening service games, not helped by a couple of double faults. However, it would be Nishikori who faced the first break points in the fourth game, and Khachanov showed that he has more strings to his bow than simply power as he came in for a volley winner.
The centre court at Halle hummed in approval as some blistering drives hammered down the line, but amongst the winners were shanks and then a shocking smash into the net. He, too, had to fight off a break point, but with almost half an hour played, these two stood all square. The match promised much—until Nishikori took a sudden medical time out, and two points later, unable to run, he retired.
It was a disappointment not only for the crowd but for the Japanese man himself: This is the third year in a row he has been forced to concede a match here.
“Yeah, very disappointed,” he said afterwards: “Especially as I was feeling very well today and didn’t see this coming. Feel very bad for the tournament as well.”
But it did set up a very tasty contest between the two young Russians who grew up together and know each other’s games very well.
“We practise together and spend many times together, and know each other really well. We play a few times at juniors, play often in practice, so no secrets—just a friendly match and we both do our best.”
“We’re good friends, and we were practising since we were 10 years old in the same club in Moscow and now we practise in the same club in Barcelona. We are friends outside the court but in the match, both of us will try to play good and win.”
Friends they may be, but with so much at stake, this will be an intriguing contest. The winner will make the semis here, and that may even earn him the chance of a shot at the old champion himself, Federer.
Before that, though, the grass-court maestro would have two tricky matches of his own to negotiate, both against Germans. First Mischa Zverev, then Mayer, who took out Pouille in three compelling sets, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3.