Olympics: Zverev v Khachanov in gold medal clash

  • Matt Trollope

Alexander Zverev and Karen Khachanov will battle for men's singles gold on the ninth and final day of competition at the Olympic Tennis Event in Tokyo on Sunday.

And like the women’s final between Belinda Bencic and Marketa Vondrousova, few would have predicted Zverev and Khachanov to be the last two players standing at Ariake Tennis Park. 

READ MORE: Bencic beats Vondrousova for Swiss gold

World No.1 Novak Djokovic was the prohibitive favourite and it seemed likely he would face either No.2 seed Daniil Medvedev or third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the gold medal clash, given both rising stars were enjoying impressive seasons and had already appeared in Grand Slam finals this year.

But in the biggest shock of 2021, Zverev recovered from a set and a break down to snap Djokovic’s 22-match winning streak in the semifinals on Friday.

Alexander Zverev reacts to beating Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Alexander Zverev reacts to defeating Novak Djokovic at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics: "It's incredible beating the best player in the world undoubtedly right now, and in this season. It seemed it was impossible to beat him at this event." (Getty Images)

And after Medvedev and Tsitsipas bowed out earlier in the week, Khachanov emerged from the bottom half of the draw, beating Pablo Carreno Busta in a straight-sets semifinal.

READ MORE: Zverev stuns Djokovic, will face Khachanov for gold

While Zverev is a current top-five player who has won 21 of his past 25 matches, Khachanov was once ranked eighth two years ago but had since slipped to 25th.

Until the Tokyo Olympics he had not appeared in tour-level final since 2018 and, prior to July, his win-loss record this season was a lukewarm 16-14.

But he rediscovered his confident, assertive game at Wimbledon to reach the quarterfinals – he came within a set of progressing to the semis – and has continued that strong form in Tokyo.

He has won nine of his last 10 matches prior to facing Zverev on Sunday, attributing his resurgence to psychology.

“Since last year, when I had a couple of ups and downs and I dropped a little mentally, I started to work on my mindset,” he revealed after beating Carreno Busta. 

Karen Khachanov won his Olympic men's singles semifinal over Pablo Carreno Busta at Tokyo 2020
With his semifinal victory over Pablo Carreno Busta, Karen Khachanov has won nine of his post 10 matches. (Getty Images)

“Mentality means different things for different parts of the match – how do you approach those kinds of circumstances, those kinds of situations, and how you deal with them. 

“At the end of the day, your strokes are there, you’ve been practising tennis all your life – you cannot forget how to play tennis. But how you use your shots, in which moments, and how you deal with pressure, this is one of the most important things. 

“This match today (against Carreno Busta) was very important for my head.”

Khachanov’s last tournament title came at the Paris Masters in 2018, when he beat both Zverev and Djokovic on his way to winning the biggest title of his career.

He is an unblemished 4-0 in tournament finals – but has never played for a prize as prestigious as this. 

“At least you know for sure that you’re guaranteed a medal, which is one of the dreams come true. But obviously, you need to find motivation and excitement, and I will try to be prepared for the final and fight for the gold,” Khachanov said.

“I play tennis for those moments, I practise for these kind of matches and when you get there, when it’s paying off, it’s just a pure pleasure to be here.

“(They are) the kind of memories that will stay forever.”

Khachanov has won his past two matches against Zverev – the duo have split four career meetings – but the last time they crossed paths was in 2019.

“At the end of the day, your strokes are there, you’ve been practising tennis all your life – you cannot forget how to play tennis."
Karen Khachanov

Since then, Zverev has gone on to appear in a major final (US Open 2020) as well as grow his collection of ATP Masters titles to four, thanks to his triumph in Madrid a few months ago.

Zverev was also a set away from progressing to this year's Roland Garros final and is Increasingly confident on the sport’s biggest stages. 

But he finds himself presented with a unique opportunity amid a different type of pressure as he plays for Germany’s first singles gold medal since Steffi Graf triumphed in Seoul in 1988.

"You're not only playing for yourself. You are playing for the whole country, for the people here, for everybody watching and supporting you,” Zverev said. 

"It's an amazing feeling, knowing that you're going to bring the medal back to your house, back home to Germany.”

Unlike Khachanov, who has been stretched to three sets in three of his five matches in Tokyo, the 24-year-old Zverev has dropped just one set en route to the final.

That was against Djokovic – until he rebounded in spectacular style. 

"It's incredible beating the best player in the world undoubtedly right now, and in this season. It seemed it was impossible to beat him at this event, so I’m very happy right now,” Zverev said.

“But there's still one match to go."