Sporting a well-manicured beard and clothes tailored to his athletic frame, Karen Khachanov proved himself an ice-cold spoiler of hype once again on Friday night at Melbourne Park.
In a clash between the two beaten semi-finalists in last September’s US Open, the Russian posted a 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (11-9) win over American Frances Tiafoe on John Cain Arena.
Karen Khachanov celebrates after defeating American Frances Tiafoe on Friday night.Credit:AP
The fourth-set tie-breaker was a thriller, with Tiafoe holding a 6-1 advantage, only for the Russian to show remarkable resilience in reeling in the deficit in a high-class display.
Tiafoe has matured into a hot prospect on the tour. Charismatic and entertaining, the American possesses a beaming smile that lights up stadium courts around the world.
The Netflix star flashed all his charms again on Friday night. There were flushed forehands followed by first pumps. He wore colourful clothes while cajoling the crowd into a frenzy.
But Khachanov is an old hand at dealing with the theatrics of rivals and the fickleness of fans.
On the far bigger Arthur Ashe Stadium last September, he dealt with raucous New Yorkers urging the tour’s self-proclaimed rebel on to a greater cause. Nick Kyrgios was his name.
Karen Khachanov held his nerve in the final set tie-breaker.Credit:AP
By then the favourite to win the US Open title, the Australian was subdued early before launching a stirring comeback to force a fifth set. But the spoiler of hype held his nerve.
Another balloon burst. On that cool night in New York, Khachanov blunted the Kyrgios serve and defused a title threat.
Against Tiafoe, he weathered the ferocity of his forehand and silenced the chanting crowd.
Khachanov, who conceded he was preparing for a fifth set when trailing 1-6 in the tiebreaker, said he did not mind the support the crowd provided for Tiafoe.
But he did have an issue with some elements of the behaviour, saying that cheering after double-faults was not necessarily fair.
“The other day, I beat a player from Australia. The crowd were not really pleased. I don’t know. But hopefully I can just keep on winning,” he said.
“To be honest with you, I like the atmosphere here … and every other crowd. But I just ask to show some respect for the crowd. To cheer after a double-fault … I don’t know.
“I know you are for the other guy. I am used to playing with atmosphere and energy. At the end of the day, even if it is atmosphere and energy against me, I still like it.”
The 18th seed broke Tiafoe’s serve at the start of the match in an early battle of wills.
His brilliance shone through at 4-3 in the second during a stunning exchange, ended with a backhand winner with both men at the net, that gave him the chance to break.
Frances Tiafoe plays a backhand.Credit:AP
Tiafoe fought back in the third. That fired the crowd up again. But Khachanov held his nerve.
In setting up a last-16 clash against Yoshihito Nishioka, he has broken new ground in Melbourne after reaching the third round in the past four editions of the tournament.
The 26-year-old has won two of his three outings against the Japanese left-hander, though Nishioka did claim their last outing in Washington last year.
Khachanov has reached at least the quarter-finals of the other three grand slams and possesses a powerful serve, lively forehand, strong backhand and good movement.
But to establish himself as a legitimate grand slam contender, either in Melbourne or at the other majors in the future, there is another significant hoodoo he must overcome.
The top seeds have tumbled at this Australian Open but champions Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray and the highly talented Holger Rune and Andrey Rublev remain alive.
Three of them are ranked in the top 10. That is the problem for Khachanov, whose last win over a rival ranked in the elite subset came against Alexander Zverev in Montreal in 2019.
Since then he has lost 22 matches straight against top-10 players, which leaves his career head-to-head against the best of the best at 10 wins from 50 outings.
Elsewhere on Friday night, dual-Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka rebounded from a tardy start to beat former US Open finalist Madison Keys 1-6, 6-2, 6-1.
But 11th seed Cameron Norrie was ousted from the men’s tournament by Czech Jiri Lehecka 6-7 (8-10), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 in 3 hours, 12 minutes.
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