Checkmate: Karen Khachanov on Chess, LeBron James & A US Open First | ATP Tour

When Karen Khachanov As a kid, he wasn’t just training to become a professional tennis player. Born in Moscow, he swam, played basketball and did track and field.

But at the age of 10-11 he also attended chess lessons. Instead of hitting forehand and backhand, Khachanov learned to outmaneuver opponents on a 64 square board where neither physical strength nor foot speed could help him.

“[In chess] you have to think all the time. You have 100 different combinations and variations with each move. It always depends on which piece your opponent is moving. Tactics always have to be there and it’s definitely also a mental game,” said Khachanov. “Sometimes you have to stay in a competition for three, four hours when we’re talking about professional chess to sweat and try to think about a move [for] maybe 30 minutes.

“You break your head and that’s the really interesting part of chess.”

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Some see Khachanov’s power from the baseline and miss the tactics he uses to position himself for his biggest shots. In a way, he thinks all the thinking that goes into the sport makes it resemble chess.

“I think there are some similarities because you’re always thinking about what kind of shot you can make. Tactics are also one of the most important things in tennis,” said Khachanov. “[It is about] where you place a shot, how hard, how high, percentage of serves, where you stay, where you will return and all those things. Of course they are important. It’s not that simple, I would say, but there are some similarities.”

One of his coaches, Jose Manuel ‘Pepo’ Clavet, is also a chess fan. When they are together, they play two or three games a day.

“I think it’s good for him to play chess because it’s a good way to focus, really focus on a game for 30 [to] 35 minutes,” said Clavet. “Every move you have to have a plan, like in a tennis game, where you also have to be very focused throughout the game, so I think it’s good for him to play chess!”

Khachanov doesn’t follow professional chess tournaments all the time, but he knows the biggest stars in chess like Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura. He also watched The Queen’s Gambit, which he described as “one of the most beautiful TV shows on Netflix that I remember.”

“I find [I play chess] that’s how I am in tennis,” Khachanov said, laughing. “I try to be the same.”

Clavet added, “I think Karen plays chess in general [he does] Tennis. He’s aggressive in both games! He’s obviously better at tennis than chess, but he likes to attack in both!”

Khachanov is also a basketball fan, attending NBA games when he can, as he did during the year earlier this year Miami Open presented by Itau. The 26-year-old was a huge Miami Heat fan growing up, watching as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh led the team to glory. He’s a huge fan of James, which has led him to follow the Los Angeles Lakers more closely, although he’s still a Heat fan.

“I think how he is, the mentality he has in the sport, what he is [has] already achieved. He’s one of the best athletes. We say [he is like] Cristiano in soccer, Messi in soccer, he, Jordan… like Rafa, Novak and Roger in tennis,” Khachanov said. “He’s one of the best basketball players. I think the way he stays motivated and still looking forward to trying his best and still scoring the way he does is hard to explain at times.”

On the pitch, Khachanov has been one of the most consistent players on the circuit in recent years. Since August 2018 he has been in the top 35 of the Pepperstone ATP rankings without dropping out of this group.

“Sometimes you just look forward to getting better. Sometimes you can be worse, so I never look back and think I’m top 20, top 30, top 35. I’m always looking forward to achieving my goals and trying to move forward,” said Khachanov. “I’m always thinking about how I can improve to climb up the rankings and be in the top 10 again. That’s the ultimate goal I have. I work every day to find out what I need [to do]what I can do better.”

Khachanov reached his career high of world No. 8 in July 2019 after winning Rolex Paris Mastersan ATP Masters 1000 event, in November before.

But one of his most impressive performances was a loss. At the 2018 US Openpushed Khachanov Rafael Nadal to the limit in a four-hour, 23-minute, four-set loss.

“I always think of New York. It’s one of my favorite slams, I would say in particular Arthur Ashe Stadion. The game against Rafa I played in 2018, the emotions, the adrenaline, it’s one of the good ones I can remember,” Khachanov said. “That’s why I always want to do well when I come back to New York.”

It’s performances like these that keep Khachanov confident on the pitch. The 27th seed still believes he can keep up with anyone on his best day.

“That’s a very important thing, believing in yourself first of all, believing in your abilities, what you can do when you play your best, where you can be and which players you can beat, how far you can go. This is obviously one of the mental parts [the] Confidence that you’re good at it,” Khachanov said. “You can go out there and still lose a match and there’s no shame in losing it. It is the belief that you can go deep and win everything. That’s what it takes and that’s a really important part of my game and tennis in general.”

For Khachanov, his game is like a jigsaw puzzle made up of components, some related to his physical tools and others to the mental side of the sport.

“It’s really important to put all these pieces together,” said Khachanov. “[With them] I can achieve what I dream of.”

The next step in making those dreams come true is to defeat the Montreal champion Pablo Carreno Busta on Sunday at Flushing Meadows.

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