ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN: One-one at the end of the first day’s play in Astana was always the favoured outcome but who would have guessed that the two highest ranked players by some margin in this tie – world No. 34 Denis Istomin and No. 70 Mikhail Kukushkin - would have to work so hard for their victories in this Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group play-off.
Such are the vagaries of Davis Cup tennis. In fact, it would not have been stretching the imagination too much to say that we might easily have had two different winners of these two rubbers and yet still produced a 1-1 scoreline at the National Tennis Centre.
In the end experience and that little extra confidence that comes from playing top level tennis probably made the difference as Istomin beat Evgeny Korolev 63 46 62 06 63 to give Uzbekistan the lead, only for Kukushkin to square the tie for the home side when he beat Farrukh Dustov 62 64 36 76(5).
Although the scoreline was what was expected, the idea that Kazakhstan looked strong favourites before this tie suddenly seems quite fanciful. The doubles looks fairly evenly matched and should Uzbekistan edge it then they would be favourites to clinch the tie with Istomin facing Kukushkin in the first of the reverse singles on Sunday. Although Kukushkin could only remember playing the Uzbek once, he has, in fact, played him twice and lost to him twice, once on clay, albeit six years ago.
Perhaps no-one felt more like a winner on day one than one of the losers, Korolev. Two surgeries to his elbow in the space of 12 months have seriously impacted upon his career and consigned him largely to life on the Challenger circuit for the best part of the last couple of years in an attempt to re-establish himself, so a five-set defeat to Istomin – who considered himself “a little bit lucky” - could be viewed quite positively.
His two wins in two matches against Istomin may have been the reason why Dias Doskarayev, the captain, selected him ahead of Andrey Golubev, but most thought they were so long ago – 2006 and ’09 – as to be irrelevant. Perhaps not.
Going into the final set, it was beginning to look as if Korolev might pull off a famous victory against a player who had momentarily given Roger Federer a fright on his way to winning a silver medal at the London Olympics. In a match of so many twists and turns, however, it was a brave man who predicted anything. He certainly had the momentum after winning seven games on the trot, but he lost concentration just at the wrong moment.
“Denis is a great player and very tough to beat if you’re not on every point there, which is what happened in the fifth set,” said Korolev, who once got as high as 46 in the world. “I tried my best but somewhere I lost concentration and focus and he was there.
“It’s a long time since I played a player like this. It was my first five-set match since the 2010 Australian Open. That was the year I beat [Tomas] Berdych, that was the year I lost to [Fernando] Gonzalez in five sets, and that was the last year I played really well. I’m sad that I lost here and had the opportunity to play a little bit better, but it gives me hope that I have a good chance to come back.”
When Kukushkin went two sets to love up against a player ranked 238 places beneath him the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion. Then 6ft 4in Dustov suddenly worked out how to play someone whom he knew well but had never played against. Kukushkin looked a bit flummoxed as Dustov hit back to take the third set and then a 3-1 lead at the start of the fourth. He even had a break point for 4-1. Credit Kukushkin – who was not bothered by his long-standing hip injury – for recovering his poise and toughing it out in the tiebreak.
“It’s bitter-sweet that we were so close to being 2-0 but at the same time we could have been down 2-0,” said Doskarayev. “As for the doubles, they’re going to play big guys, big serves - they cover the court pretty well - and it’s just going to be a matter of how well they serve and how good we return.”
Follow this tie as it happens: Live scores or Watch Live
Farrukh Dustov (UZB) - 14/09/2012
Captain Dias Doskarayev (KAZ) - 14/09/2012
Mikhail Kukushkin (KAZ) - 14/09/2012
Denis Istomin (UZB) - 14/09/12
Evgeny Korolev (KAZ) - 14/09/12