ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN: The irony will not be lost on the Kazaks, or the Russians for that matter, that while their team maintained their place in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group for a third consecutive year this past weekend, Russia suffered demotion from it for the first time in 20 years – and the painful humiliation of a whitewash to boot against Brazil.
Russia’s fall from grace – twice winners and once runners-up in the last 10 years – has coincided with the rise to eminence of Kazakhstan with a group of players who were all born in Russia.
Four or five years ago Russia’s elite, players like Marat Safin, Nikolay Davydenko and Mikhail Youzhny, were all still at the peak of their powers and they had enough in reserve to have no need of emerging talent such as Andrey Golubev, Mikhail Kukushkin and Evgeny Korolev, so the trio threw in their lot with Kazakhtan.
Since then Safin has retired from tennis and Youzhny and Davydenko haven’t played Davis Cup singles in a year and two years, respectively. Shamil Tarpishev, Russia’s long-standing captain, must now be casting envious glances towards his Kazakhstan neighbours.
The beauty of the Kazak players is that they’re a team of all-rounders. When they shook the tennis world to its very core two years ago by beating Switzerland 5-0 and then followed it up – just to prove it wasn’t a fluke – by beating Czech Republic in Ostrava, the baby-faced Golubev was their No. 1. Against Uzbekistan, Dias Doskarayev, the Kazakhstan captain, could afford to leave him out of the singles completely and keep him just for the doubles.
Judging by the way he performed in the doubles alongside Yuriy Schukin in what has become dedicated doubles team for the Kazaks, his ranking of No. 164 should soon be moving back up around the 30 mark where it once was.
Another whose game is on the up after double elbow surgery is Korolev, who pushed world No. 34 Denis Istomin to five sets in the opening rubber. Korolev’s ranking is more than 200 places from where it once was and his performance here encouraged him to believe that he could regain his standing in the game.
Kukushkin, who like fellow 25-year-old Golubev is from Volgograd in Russia, was promoted to the No. 1 spot against Uzbekistan and was not found wanting, contributing two points in the 3-1 win. It takes players of a certain temperament to be able to handle Davis Cup and Kukushkin - a humble man – possesses that strength of character.
Some players might have been a little fazed when the big Farrukh Dustov came back at him in the second rubber, but Kukushkin maintained his focus. It was the same in the tie-clinching fourth rubber when Istomin rallied from two sets down. Kukushkin kept his nerve and continued going for his shots.
Staying in the World Group is crucial to Kazakhstan’s development as a tennis nation. In what is an otherwise very expensive city to live in, the Kazak Tennis Federation charged just $4 for tickets to the tie at the National Tennis Centre in Astana. And Kazakhstan were very good value for it.
As for Uzbekistan, who are trying to follow in the footsteps of neighbours Kazakhstan, they need to provide Istomin with more support. At the end of a long, successful season, he spread himself a little too thinly in three rubbers and was found wanting.