ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN: If Denis Istomin, the Uzbekistan No. 1, fails to win the opening rubber of their first-ever local derby against Kazakhstan it could turn out to be a very long weekend for them. On recent form the man who gave Roger Federer a first-set fright at the 2012 London Olympics should give the away team a flying start in this Davis Cup World Group play-off tie, but if Evgeny Korolev rediscovers his past form then we could be looking at another whitewash in Astana.
The last time Kazakhstan played a Davis Cup tie at the National Tennis Center they shook the tennis world by winning 5-0 against Switzerland, who, albeit, were without Federer. They went on to cause another upset away to Czech Republic before their run finally hit the buffers in a 5-0 defeat to Argentina in the quarterfinals. All it meant was that the new boys to the World Group had set the bar incredibly high for themselves.
To the surprise of many, Dias Doskarayev, the Kazakhstan captain, has awarded the second singles spot to Korolev instead of the higher ranked Andre Golubev, presumably in the knowledge that Korolev defeated Istomin on both the occasions that they have met. But those hard-earned victories were a long time ago – in 2006 and ’09 – since when Korolev has twice had surgery to an elbow that has seriously hampered the development of the promising 24-year-old cousin of Anna Kournikova.
“The double surgery really threw me back in the rankings and also in tennis condition and physical condition,” said Korolev, who got as high as No. 46 in the rankings, but now plays largely on the Challenger circuit. “Tennis grows with every year - every half year. People play better, people play stronger. Guys – they don’t sleep they practise so much, so hard. Everybody can play now, more or less. It’s going to be difficult for me to come back – I know that - but I made it before and I’m still pretty young, I hope.”
What with Mikhail Kukushkin, the Kazakhstan No. 1, also facing surgery on his hip once this tie is over, this may not be the home banker it appears on paper, although Kukushkin, the world No. 70, shouldn’t have any problems against Farrukh Dustov, a player ranked 238 places beneath him. He expects the clay surface to be a lot less punishing to his hip than the unforgiving hard courts of Flushing Meadows, where he was forced to retire in his first round match against Jarkko Nieminen.
Although Kukushkin and Dustov have never played one another, they used to tour together a few years ago and Kukushkin has made a point of watching out for his old friend’s results on the Challenger circuit. He will be expected to square the tie after Istomin has had his revenge on Korolev. The Uzbekistani has been in fine form this summer. He loves the grass and put both Fernando Verdasco and Gilles Muller to the sword there in the Olympics and was then 5-all 15-40 on Federer’s serve in their third round match.
“Maybe if I broke him then the game would have changed,” he said of his encounter with the eventual silver medallist. “I lose but it was a great opportunity to show my game and see how they [the top players] play. Now I start believing in myself more and more.”
Istomin has been named to play in all three rubbers by the captain Petr Lebes and it will certainly require a super-human effort from him if he is to steer Uzbekistan into the World Group proper for the first time in their history.
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Evgeny Korolev (KAZ) v Denis Istomin (UZB)
R2: Mikhail Kukushkin (KAZ) v Farrukh Dustov (UZB)
R3: Andrey Golubev / Yuriy Schukin (KAZ) v Farrukh Dustov / Denis Istomin (UZB)
R4: Mikhail Kukushkin (KAZ) v Denis Istomin (UZB)
R5: Evgeny Korolev (KAZ) v Farrukh Dustov (UZB)
Follow this tie as it happens: Live scores or Watch Live
Denis Istomin (UZB) - 13/09/12
Evgeny Korolev (KAZ) - 13/09/12
Mikhail Kukushkin (KAZ) - 13/09/12