ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN: Andre Agassi’s game famously once collapsed at the French Open upon the unexpected arrival of former President Bill Clinton, and Mikhail Kukushkin suffered a similar outbreak of nerves when Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev made a surprise appearance at the National Tennis Centre in Astana during their Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group play-off against Uzbekistan.
Fortunately for the home nation, Kukushkin, unlike Agassi, managed to get himself back on track after the president’s untimely arrival five games into his potentially decisive rubber against Denis Istomin, pulling off an unscheduled 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 6-2 victory. It maintained Kazakhstan’s place in the World Group for a third consecutive year.
“The first game after he came I was a complete disaster, I was so nervous,” said the Kazakhstan No. 1. “But after that I calmed down a little bit and started to play my game again and really enjoy this moment.”
Kukushkin had vowed that he would not be afraid of facing Istomin, who had beaten him twice before and at No. 34 in the world rankings is 36 places ahead of the Kazak. It may sound like an obvious thing to say but plenty of players who talk the talk shrink like violets once caught up in the intimidating atmosphere of Davis Cup, but Kukushkin was true to his word and played aggressively from the outset.
“Istomin helped us a little bit inasmuch as his first serve percentage wasn’t quite there,” said Dias Doskarayev, the Kazakhstan captain. “He had quite a good year, the year was long, he played quite good in the Olympics, so he must have been a little bit tired, but a win is a win and we’ll take it.”
Istomin was certainly in passive mood and not just by contrast. He surrendered the first set and when 5-2 down in the second complained bitterly to umpire Ben Anderson about noise from the crowd whenever he was serving.
His main problem, though, was of a physical nature and at 2-0 down in the third he requested a timeout for treatment to his back. This was his third rubber in three days, unlike his opponent, who did not feature in the doubles. It was Kukushkin’s hope that if it went to five sets Istomin would be found wanting physically.
This should not be allowed to detract from the performance of the Kazak, who himself is due to go into hospital this week for hip surgery. Nevertheless, Istomin did seem to move more freely after the massage and broke back for 3-all with his first break point of the match.
Even so, Kukushkin was soon back in the driving seat and serving for the match and the tie at 6-5, only for Istomin to take it to a tiebreak in which Kukushkin, all credit to him, continued going for his shots. With the Uzbek edging it it was again a time for Kukushkin to show his mettle as the match went to a fourth set.
It’s at moments like this that players suddenly lose their way, but Kukushkin was like a man on a mission and stayed focussed until a loose forehand from Istomin handed him a break for 4-2. The Kazakh was in a hurry and wrapped up the match on Istomin’s serve on his third match point. His president must have been proud of him.
Captain Dias Doskarayev (KAZ) - 16/09/12
Mikhail Kukushkin (KAZ) - 16/09/12