OVIEDO, SPAIN: The defending Davis Cup champions may be without their leading lights, Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, but they know how to put on an intimidation show as they welcomed Kazakahstan to Oviedo for the official draw ahead of their Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group first round tie.
The plush velvet curtains of the Teatro Campoamor lifted to reveal the mighty host nation, decked out in state-of-the-art red, the Davis Cup trophy glinting in front of them. Across the stage, the minnows Kazakhstan in their pale blue tracksuits, travelling from home yet again to attempt to cause a Davis Cup upset.
Kazakhstan's No.1, Mikhail Kukushkin, is a more familiar name in tennis parlance since battling his way to the fourth round at last month's Australian Open. But the Russian-born Kazakh has Davis Cup pedigree too. It was Kukushkin who won a thrilling five-set fifth rubber over Jan Hajek in icy conditions in Ostrava last March, upsetting the Czech Republic to reach the quarterfinals on their Davis Cup World Group debut.
"Last year was for us, for Kazakhstan, it was the best tournament so far, we beat a strong team in the first round, so we are looking forward to the next match," Kukushkin said. "It's going to be a tough tie, it's Spain, the No.1 in Davis Cup. But we are not afraid, we will try to do our best, we will try to win."
Promoted to the position of his country's No.1, it will be Kukushkin who begins Kazakhstan's campaign tomorrow afternoon, taking on one of the most experienced Davis Cup players still competing, Juan Carlos Ferrero.
"[To play Ferrero] he's such a good player, I saw a lot of matches of him many years ago when I was starting to play tennis, so I didn't dream that I can play against him on such a big level, for me it's huge experience," Kukushkin said.
For Ferrero, called up in the absence of Nadal and Ferrer, his selection for the team is just reward for his patience over the past 12 months, and his record speaks for itself.
“In the last year it's been very difficult to be in this team, because of Rafa and Ferrer, so I'm very excited to play again, and I will try to give my best in this tie, " Ferrero said.
"It's a lot of times that I play the first [rubber], so I have the responsibility to try to give the first point, but I'm ready to do it and happy to do it."
In the second of the two singles rubbers, Spain's No.1, Nicolas Almagro, will face the ever baby-faced Andrey Golubev, who recorded an impressive victory over Czech No.1 Tomas Berdych in the first round last year.
Saturday's doubles is due to feature Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez against Yuriy Schukin and Evgeny Korolev, a rubber that is sure to go Spain's way. But captain Alex Corretja, in charge of the Spanish side for the first time, knows not to take the Kazakhstan team lightly.
"I'm conscious that they are very good players, they might not have a great ATP ranking because through the year it's not easy for them to keep their level week by week, but you need to respect them a lot," Corretja said.
"It's a great pleasure for me to be here, I'm very pleased to be selected as captain for this great team, and especially as defending champions, because I believe it's a great honour," Corretja said."It's nice to see that your country has been so successful in the last years, and it seems like we've been doing a great job, so I hope I can continue with that."
Kazakhstan's captain Yegor Shaldunov, on the other hand, admits that his side have nothing to lose.
"They're the winner of the previous year, and we are the visiting team," Shaldunov said. "But I think our guys will show their best tennis in the next three days."
It is set to be an interesting start to Davis Cup 2012.
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Ferrero (ESP) v Kukushkin (KAZ)
R2: Almagro (ESP) v Golubev (KAZ)
R3: Granollers / Lopez (ESP) v Korolev / Schukin (KAZ)
R4: Almagro (ESP) v Kukushkin (KAZ)
R5: Ferrero (ESP) v Golubev (KAZ)
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Captain Alex Corretja (ESP) - 09/02/2012
Juan Carlos Ferrero (ESP) - 09/02/2012
Mikhail Kukushkin (KAZ) - 09/02/2012