KAZAN, RUSSIA: At 2:45 pm on Friday, Kazan's Tennis Academy was ready to host its biggest event yet. The nation's pride is at stake with Russia finding themselves in an unfamiliar territory having to fight the visiting Brazil for a place in next year's Davis Cup World Group.
After the introductions followed by national anthems of the two nations, it was finally time to go to work with Russia's No. 1 Mikhail Youzhny opening against Brazil's No. 2 Ricardo Mello.
Right off the bat, it was obvious why Youzhny is 88 spots above Mello in the ATP rankings. The 29-year-old broke his opponent in his very first service game, sealing it with a vicious backhand crosscourt winner. In the fifth game of the set with Youzhny serving, Mello went up 40-0 looking for his own break, but Youzhny bounced back and wrapped up the set without dropping a game.
Mello did manage to take a couple of games in the second, but few doubted the outcome by then. Youzhny took the third 6-1 to put Russia 1 up in the tie.
Despite more than a comfortable scoreline, Youzhny wasn't ready do downplay the toughness of the match: "The score might look like it was easy, but it wasn't, it never is in the Davis Cup, the emotional pressure of playing for your country is always high - if you allow yourself to relax, everything can go down the drain". While Mello admitted Youzhny is just in a different class: "I didn't play bad and I tried so many different things, but every time he came up with a better shot, he's just on another level, much, much better".
Just as predicted, the second rubber of the Russia-Brazil play-off turned out a much tougher one for the hosts with Igor Andreev facing the visitors' top gun Thomaz Bellucci.
Faced with the task of levelling the tie, the world No. 38 didn't waste time, breaking Andreev in the third game of the opening set. However, there was no such striking difference in the players' class as in the opener, and it was clear it would be a much closer contested match. Still, that break was enough for Bellucci to take the opener 6-4.
The second was going with serve until the 7th game when the Brazilian again went ahead with a break, and then made it three games in a row to take the set 6-3.
The third followed the same pattern with Bellucci proving a little too much for Andreev and wrapping a 64 63 63 win to level the tie.
Andreev, who hasn't won a match in the Davis Cup for a couple of years, looked completely devastated afterwards, his answers barely heard through the press-conference hall.
Meanwhile, Bellucci and Brazil captain Joao Zwetsch were all smiles. "I was expecting a long match, but I'm just happy to get the first point for us - just as happy as if it was a five-setter, it was very important in order to have a chance to play in those key games on Sunday".
So the tie is level at 1-all, as most have predicted, and Saturday's doubles, in which Brazil's Bruno Soares and Marcelo Melo are considered favorites against Russia's Dmitry Tursunov and Igor Kunitsyn, will most certainly be the tie's pivotal point.
- Follow this tie: Live Scores
Thomaz Bellucci (BRA) - 16/09/2011
Ricardo Mello (BRA) - 16/09/2011
Mikhail Youzhny (RUS) - 16/09/2011