Karen Khachanov begins his Paris Masters title defence on Tuesday when he takes on Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff in the second round.
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A year ago, Khachanov produced arguably the finest week of his career to win the Paris Masters title, beating four top-ten players, including world No. 1, Novak Djokovic to claim his maiden Masters 1000 crown.
That Paris title capped a very good 2018, which also yielded titles in Marseille and Moscow, and a year-end ranking of No. 11. While Khachanov has gone on to break into the top-ten in 2019, he has generally had a disappointing season, as reflected by his very ordinary 27-25 win-loss record. (He was 44-22 in 2018). A poor start to the 2019 season featured eight opening round exits in his first ten tournaments, and while the results got better after that, he’s never truly found his best form on a consistent basis.
Another pointer to the sort of year he’s had is his position in the ATP’s Race to London- he’s currently ranked 16th, leaving him with almost no chance of qualifying for the Nitto ATP Finals. To earn a very unlikely debut appearance in London, Khachanov needs to retain his Paris Masters title, and hope for a big helping hand from everyone else around him.
The 23-year-old is yet to lift a title since winning this tournament last year, with his best efforts in 2019 being semi-finals in Montreal and Beijing, and quarter finals at Indian Wells, Roland Garros, Halle, Moscow, and most recently in Beijing. Khachanov broke into the top ten after reaching his maiden Grand Slam quarter final at Roland Garros, and he has maintained that top-ten status since then, peaking at No. 8 in the world.
That status will come under heavy scrutiny this week in Paris as he defends the 1000 points he got from his title-run last year, and he faces a tricky start on Tuesday when he confronts big-hitting German, Struff.
Struff got through a tough first round on Monday, battling back from a set down to defeat Yoshihito Nishioka 4-6 7-5 6-2. The German was slow off the blocks, dropping his serve twice en route losing the opening set, but he subsequently tidied up his serving, firing 17 of his 20 aces in the second and third sets, saving all four break points he faced across those sets.
Struff has put together his best season, crossing 30 tour-level wins for the first time in his career, (33-26), and breaking into the ATP’s top-40 in the process. Currently ranked 36th in the world, the 29-year-old has been as high as 33rd, following a year when he’s made semi-finals in Auckland and Stuttgart, quarter finals in Barcelona and Basel, and marquee fourth round appearances at Indian Wells and Roland Garros- the furthest he’s gone at Masters 1000 and Grand Slam levels respectively.
The German did his best work in the first half of the year, but he has been off the boil for most of the second half. Before last week’s quarter final in Basel, he had not been to the last eight of any tournament since June, and had won just two of his previous eight matches. He regained some semblance of form in Basel, beating Miomir Kecmanovic and Henri Laaksonen before falling to Alex De Minaur in the last eight. Can he build on that improvement in Paris and close his season with a strong week at the Masters 1000 meet? This is only his third main draw appearance at the Paris Masters, with his best effort being a third-round run on debut in 2016, when he famously beat Stan Wawrinka for his first top-ten win. He has gone on to register five more top-ten wins, four of them in 2019.
Struff lost a tight three-setter to Khachanov in their only previous tour-level meeting in Halle earlier this year, and I expect him to run the Russian very close yet again on Tuesday. It’s a straight-forward big-hitting contest, and whoever can impose himself on the other, without making too many errors will likely come out on top.
Will a return to the Paris Masters inspire Khachanov to produce the sort of form that propelled him to the title last year? Or will he succumb to the pressure of having to defend all of those points from 12 months ago?
Karen Khachanov vs Jan-Lennard Struff is live from Paris on Tuesday, 29 October from 12:30pm local time/ 11:30am GMT