It is an oft used phrase in Davis Cup by BNP Paribas that ranking counts for nothing and nowhere is this more obvious than when Kazakhstan takes to the court.
With a top-ranked player in world No. 66 Mikhail Kukushkin, the Kazakhs have punched above their weight for the last three years in the competition and they feel there is no reason to believe that run won’t continue in 2014.
“In Davis Cup every team can win, it doesn’t matter against who you are playing,” explained Kukushkin. “Davis Cup is a different competition. It’s a lot to do with the team spirit so it doesn’t matter the ranking or even the Davis Cup ranking.
“Every player just go there and give his best for his country so you can’t be sure every time that you are going to win, but of course we hope. We’re playing at home, we choose the surface, we’re always playing good at home so of course we hope we can win.”
And with a first round tie against Belgium at the National Tennis Centre in Astana, Kukushkin has more than just hope to go on as the Kazakhs look to preserve their status among the top tier of Davis Cup nations.
Based on the current rankings, Belgium’s top player, world No. 111 David Goffin, is ranked lower than either Kukushkin or Kazakh No. 2 Andrey Golubev (No. 85) and the fact that the 23-year-old is struggling with a thigh injury also plays into the hosts’ favour.
Johan van Herck’s Belgian side could turn to the experience of Olivier Rochus (No. 209) or keep faith with Ruben Bemelmans (No. 149), who won a crucial singles rubber against Israel’s Dudi Sela in the World Group play-offs last September.
Either way, though, Kazakhstan on home soil must be favourites going into the tie, which begs the question how far does the Asian nation think it can go in the competition this year?
“Four years in the World Group, twice we’ve been in the quarterfinal so it’s tough to say that our goal is only to stay in the World Group,” said Kukushkin. “Last year we had a chance to go to the semifinals. Our goal is to do next step, go to the semifinal. First of all we have to win our first match against Belgium, but at least a good result and we at least go to the quarterfinal.”
Belgium said ‘adieu’ to long-time Davis Cup stalwart Xavier Malisse last year when the former Wimbledon semifinalist retired from tennis and Steve Darcis, who has so often produced for Belgium on the Davis Cup stage, is out with injury too.
Kazakhstan’s players have had injuries of their own to contend with – Evgeny Korolev making the return from another surgery last year – and Kukushkin is hoping that the crowd will lift his side to another victory in Astana.
He said: “The crowd sings some funny songs with our names so it’s really fun to see this. Every time we play at home we enjoy this feeling from the crowd that they give us. Every time we come back we see that more crowd is coming.”
Kazakhstan’s record at home is impressive. They will be hoping to put last year’s quarterfinal loss to eventual champions Czech Republic behind them and carry on the kind of form that has seen them defeat Switzerland, Uzbekistan and Austria on home soil.
The tie between Kazakhstan and Belgium will be played from 31 January-2 February.