WIENER NEUSTADT, AUSTRIA: One would be loathe to criticise a captain as experienced and as successful as Shamil Tarpishev, but one does wonder whether he made the right call in omitting Mikhail Youzhny, the Russian No. 1, from the opening day’s play in this Davis Cup by BNP Paribas first round tie.
One-all at the end of the day at the Arena Nova in Wiener Neustadt would be “nice”, the Russian captain had said at the draw ceremony on Thursday. Two-nil to Austria, presumably, was not nice at all.
Surely, not in his wildest dreams could Clemens Trimmel, the Austrian captain, have expected such a roaring start to his Davis Cup career against the two-time champions. Twenty-four hours earlier it would have seemed inconceivable that Austria could have this tie wrapped up inside two days, which their top 20 doubles pairing of Oliver Marach and Alexander Peya are quite capable of doing against Youzhny and Nikolay Davydenko.
While the opening rubber between Jurgen Melzer and Igor Kunitsyn was always going to be a close call, no-one could have bargained for Andreas Haider-Maurer’s fairly comprehensive victory over the Russian debutant, Alex Bogomolov Jr, in his own first Davis Cup match on home soil. Bogomolov is all of 93 spots higher in the rankings.
The Austrian plays most of his tennis at Challenger level – he is ranked No. 127 - while Bogomolov tends to play at a much higher level, and was seeded at the Australian Open. He took some notable scalps during his meteoric 120-odd place rise in the rankings last year, including those of Viktor Troicki and Feliciano Lopez. But the Russian was never really in it and lost 61 64 16(1) 62.
One couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for the 28-year-old from Miami, Florida. He had waited all his life, he said, to make his Davis Cup debut for his native country but, it has to be said, it was an ignominious start. He only became eligible to play for Russia three months ago.
The two men played doubles together last year and Bogomolov was fully aware of how comfortable his opponent was on an indoor court and what a threat he was with his serve. Haider-Maurer played quite fearlessly and his performance was proof that his first win in Davis Cup - a straight sets triumph against Belgium’s Xavier Malisse last September - was no fluke.
Of course, the surprise selection of Kunitsyn in place of Youzhny would have looked a smart move had the Russian been able to go that extra yard in the opening rubber; as he had done at last year’s US Open in a five-set win over Melzer. This time the Austrian No. 1 was not to be denied and was well worth his 62 67(3) 64 36 61 victory in four hours four minutes.
Asked afterwards who he expected to be facing in the reverse singles on Sunday, he replied: “I would be very surprised if I didn’t face Mikhail Youzhny, but we have a small chance right now that Sunday doesn’t count.”
Normally, Austria’s fortunes are intrinsically linked to those of Melzer and their fans were fully expecting – as ever – that he would have to win two points if they were to avoid their usual fate in the first round, which on the last nine occasions has been defeat. Now the one point from him might be enough.
When the fourth game of the opening set of Melzer’s match went to 10 deuces we guessed we were in for a long afternoon. Had Melzer taken one of the three sets points that were presented to him in the 12th game of the second set he might have been home for tea – after all, he lives in nearby Vienna. Instead he allowed Kunitsyn to claw his way into a tiebreak - which he won comfortably – and after that it was obvious that Youzhny’s replacement was not going to go quietly.
“He played five winners in a row to get himself out of that position,” said Melzer. “And then I lost the second set and all of a sudden I’m in a dogfight. His game suits mine. He uses the pace you give him well, which makes it very difficult. But in the end it’s the ‘W’ that counts.”
The six matches in six days that Melzer got under his belt indoors in Zagreb last week in order to compensate for a disappointing start to his season was time well spent. He quickly got over the disappointment of dropping the fourth set and stormed into a 4-1 lead in the fifth.
When he broke Kunitsyn again in a protracted sixth game the match was as good as over, if not quite yet this tie.
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Igor Kunitsyn (RUS) - 10/02/2012