World no. 9 Karen Khachanov and world no. 12 Fabio Fognini meet for the first time in Beijing, with a place in the semifinals of the China Open on the line.
Russia’s Khachanov is looking to make just his second semifinal of what has been an odd and in many ways disappointing 2019 season for him. The 23-year-old ended 2018 on a massive high, winning the title in two of his last three tournaments of the year as he claimed the Kremlin Cup trophy and then became a Masters 1000 Series champion in Paris, defeating John Isner, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic in an impressive run.
Khachanov started 2019 as the world no. 11 and burdened with high expectations as a result, but had an unfortunately-timed illness early in the season which knocked him off his rhythm and struggled to make much of an impact for the first five months of the year. He’s made up some ground since then, notably by making a first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the French Open and reaching the semifinals of the Canada Masters with a trio of excellent wins over Stan Wawrinka, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Alexander Zverev – a run which built up expectations (mine, at least) for his performance at the US Open, only for the Russian to flop out in the first round at the hands of Vasek Pospisil.
Khachanov and his wife became parents for the first time last month, so it’s not surprising that he’s only played one event between the US Open and Beijing (St Petersburg, where he lost in the first round). But he’s got some work to do to bolster his ranking ahead of the points dropping off in the next month or so, and the disparity between his ranking of world no. 9 and his Race to London standing outside the top 20 is always a danger signal.
So, much as Khachanov would no doubt like to wallow in new parenthood, he’s been hard at work in Beijing, beating Pablo Cuevas 6-2, 7-6(7) and Jeremy Chardy 7-6(2), 7-6(5) to book his place in the quarterfinals and hoping to make just his second semifinal of the season, after the Canada Masters, at the 500-level event.
Like Khachanov, Fognini became a Masters 1000 Series champion for the first time within the last 12 months, claiming the biggest title of his career at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters in April. Also like Khachanov, Fognini had a slow start to the season, winning just four matches in his first eight events, but unlike the Russian, the tennis-watching world is inured to Fognini’s unpredictability and inconsistency, and expects little else.
After winning the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, Fognini went on to make the last 16 in both Madrid and at Roland Garros, but hasn’t done much since, making the quarterfinals of Hamburg and the Canada Masters but crashing out of the US Open in the first round to Reilly Opelka, and playing the Laver Cup (where he contributed little to Team Europe) instead of defending last year’s runner-up points at the Chengdu Open.
Down to world no. 12 as a result, Fognini is currently in 13th place on the Race to London – which sounds as if he should be out of contention, but actually there are only 220 points which separate Matteo Berrettini, currently occupying the last qualifying position, from his compatriot Fognini (who is in turn followed closely by Diego Schwartzman), so the battle is real and with contenders Roberto Bautista Agut, Berrettini, Kei Nishikori and Gael Monfils all unable to add any more points this week, going deep in Beijing could be a real factor when it comes to ATP Finals chances.
After edging past Mikhail Kukushkin in a third-set tie-break in the first round, Fognini got what I thought was a very good win over Andrey Rublev 6-3, 6-4 in the second round in Beijing, setting him up nicely to take a crack at Khachanov. The Italian is, as always, battling various injuries and physically questionable, but it’s not as if Khachanov – although fit as far as I know – has many recent wins to draw on. It’s a tough one to call, but the conditions in Beijing seem to suit Fognini and he should be able to use them to his advantage to take time away from Khachanov, who needs time to set up for his big swings. It could be Fognini’s day and his chance to make a third China Open semifinal.
Khachanov vs Fognini China Open tennis is live from Beijing on Friday at 12.30pm local/5.30am BST
Khachanov vs Fognini tennis live streaming, preview and predictions – First meeting between Masters champions in Beijing
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