Mikhail Kukushkin

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From Canucks to Kazakhs: Previewing the Davis Cup World Group Quarterfinals

Yes, Novak, the challenge confronting Team USA this weekend is THAT big.

Balanced among four continents, the Davis Cup World Group quarterfinals illustrate the diversity of excellence in this sport.  From Vancouver, Canada to Astana, Kazakhstan, each of the ties contains multiple storylines that we discuss in a preview.

Canada vs. Italy:  Choice of surface often plays a crucial role in handing the home team a Davis Cup advantage, and such may prove the case again when a nation of fast-court players hosts a nation of clay specialists.  While Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini excel on the prevailing surface of Europe, the edge swings to the massive serves of Milos Raonic and the similarly aggressive style of Vasek Pospisil on the indoor hard court that Canada has laid in Vancouver.  Thumping Davis Cup superpower Spain in this arena to start 2013 World Group play, Raonic and his compatriots should have gained a valuable boost of confidence, albeit a little mitigated by the Canadian No. 1’s recent illness.  If Pospisil’s youth undoes him against the more experienced Italians, doubles specialist Daniel Nestor might suffice to supplement Raonic’s effort in propelling Canada through.  He has accumulated more renown in that area than any of the Italians, although Pospisil may be the weakest link of the four on the court.  The Canadians certainly will hope to win in three or four rubbers, for nobody wants to gamble on what Italian No. 2 Fognini can produce when inspiration strikes him.

Winner:  Canada

USA vs. Serbia:  With world No. 1 Novak Djokovic towering ominously above this tie, Team USA must rest its hopes on winning the three rubbers that he does not play.  Or must they?  Both of the American singles players, Sam Querrey and John Isner, defeated Djokovic on hard courts last season.  Querrey’s victory came on fast indoor courts in Paris, perhaps similar to those in Boise, while Isner’s triumph came on the marquee stage of Indian Wells, illustrating his tendency to excel on home soil.  Appearing to nurse an abdominal strain in Miami, Djokovic produced one of his least impressive performances on the spring hard courts in years and can fluster under the pressure of overpowering serves.  Much less impressive all season are the two American giants, however, so sustaining a Djokovic-stifling level of play in a best-of-five format seems beyond their grasp.  Instead, they will hope to win the doubles behind Bob and Mike Bryan and pounce on Serbian #2 Viktor Troicki.  Despite a first-round setback against Brazil, the Bryans almost always deliver for Team USA.  But Troicki holds a 5-2 edge over Querrey and Isner, so they will need all of the assistance that the home crowd can give them to make it 5-4.

Winner:  Serbia

Argentina vs. France:  Arguably the best Davis Cup team on paper, France enjoys the rare balance of star power and depth not only two top-15 singles players but an elite doubles squad in Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra.  Still, all of the Frenchmen will confront the challenge of playing on their worst surface against a team playing on its best.  Hoping that home-court advantage will narrow the talent gap, Argentina welcomes them to the Parque Roca with clay specialists Juan Monaco and Carlos Berlocq.  The former man has watched his ranking skid this year as he has not won a match outside Davis Cup, but he did sweep his two first-round rubbers against Germany.  Playing above his usual level in that tie, Berlocq defeated French No. 2 Simon twice in three clay meetings last year, which could offer the Argentines an edge if the tie reaches a fifth rubber.  To do so, and circumvent French No. 1 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, they likely would have to win the doubles match with their seasoned pair of Horacio Zeballos and David Nalbandian.  Those two have played many a Davis Cup thriller before and usually rise to the occasion, but Benneteau and Llodra usually do too, so the doubles could be the highlight of the weekend.

Winner:  France

Kazakhstan vs. Czech Republic:  If this regularly overachieving group of Kazakhs stunned a Czech team in their native Ostrava two years ago, they must feel sanguine about their chances against the Czechs in Kazakhstan. More important than the location of the tie, moreover, is the absence of Czech #1 Tomas Berdych, which leaves a massive void in the visitors’ singles lineup.  Stepping into the gap, Lukas Rosol hopes to recapture the magic that he found on a single day at Wimbledon but that has eluded him since then.  Neither Rosol nor the other Czech singles entrant, Jan Hajek, boasts much experience of success in Davis Cup.  In contrast, this same Kazakh team has delivered surprise after surprise against favored opponents in this competition.  Lurking in the doubles and perhaps in the Sunday reverse singles, Radek Stepanek must fill the leadership role for the defending champions, but the 34-year-old’s energy is limited and skills fading.  Without a single man in the top 150, the home team should reach the World Group semifinals for the first time.  Whether this reflects poorly or well on Davis Cup is open to debate.

Winner:  Kazakhstan

10 Reasons to be Excited for Davis Cup Weekend

Switzerland's Davis Cup team member Federer speaks to Wawrinka during a practice session in Fribourg

The time has come!  While Andrea has done a great job breaking down the World Group match-ups, I thought I’d spell out for you the specific reasons why you should set your alarm for 5AM, skip work, cancel all of your social plans, and dedicate your entire Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to the wonder that is Davis Cup.

 

10. The Newcomers

It’s been 8 years since Canada has been in the World Group.  For Japan it’s been 27.  In both cases the newcomers, led by youngsters Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori respectively, will be looking to prove that they belong with the big guns.  Both teams have uphill battles- Japan hosts Croatia and Canada hosts France, but there’s nothing quite as exciting as fresh blood.

 

9.  Fedmania!

In a giant reversal of storylines, Federer is the only one of the “Big 4″ playing in Davis Cup this weekend.  To top it off, he’s playing in Switzerland, against a depleted but still fun-to-beat American squad, and with good buddy Stanislas Wawrinka by his side. Love him or not, it will be fun to see the Legend soak in the well-deserved adoration and play in a team atmosphere on his home turf.

8. Russian Roulette

The Russian Davis Cup Team has undergone a bit of a makeover.  Alex Bogomolov, Jr. is not only making his Russian debut, but he’s the team’s #1 player.  Dmitry Tursnov and Igor Andreev, team mainstays, are absent while the struggling Nikolay Davydenko and the wildcard Igor Kunitsyn take their place.  Mikhail Youzhny is coming off singles and doubles victories in Zagreb, but has been complaining to the press about an injured shoulder.  All in all, there’s absolutely no telling what to expect from Team Russia as they travel to Jurgen Melzer’s Austria this weekend, and as always- that’s part of the fun.

 

7. Veterans Day

Some players have proven time and time again that they adapt to the Davis Cup atmosphere better than others.  Whether it’s Melzer leading his Austrian team, Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek becoming mental giants for the Czech Republic, or David Nalbandian discovering the game (and legs) of his youth, there’s nothing quite as exhilarating as seeing the veteran guys play their hearts out for their country.

 

6. The Battle of the Misfits

One of the ties I’m most looking forward to is Spain/Kazakhstan.  The Spanish Davis Cup stalwarts (Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, and Fernando Verdasco) who have dominated the team competition for the past few years are sitting out this year, paving the way for their less heralded countrymen (Nicolas Almagro, Marcel Granollers, Legend and Former #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Marc Lopez). Meanwhile Kazakhstan’s team is full of former Russians (Mikhail Kukushkin, Andrey Golubev, Yuri Schukin, and Evgeny Korolev) who migrated over to the neighboring country for a chance to shine.  It will be fun to see all of these former “back-ups” take the stage and fight for Davis Cup glory.

 

5. Tommy Haas

Do I really need to explain this one? The often injured but forever adored German (when he’s not American) is back in Davis Cup action for the first time in five years! How lucky are we?  Let’s just sit back and enjoy.

 

4. The Other Groups

Believe it or not, the World Group Playoffs aren’t the only Davis Cup action happening this weekend. There are some pretty crucial ties happening in “Group I” and “Group II” (don’t you dare ask me to explain what that means).  Teams in action that you might be interested in are: Ukraine (Sergiy Stakhovsky! Sergei Bubka- yes, Vika’s boyfriend!) vs. Monaco, Uzbekistan (Denis Istomin- am I the only one interested in him?) vs. New Zealand, Australia (Hewitt! Tomic! You know them!) vs. China, P.R., Great Britain (Murray-less) vs. Slovak Republic (starring recent ATP Zagreb finalist Lukas Lacko).  You’d be amiss if you didn’t scavenge for some (surely static) streams for the lesser-known teams this weekend too.

 

3. The New Heroes

Every year Davis Cup weekend, especially the first round, breeds unheralded heroes.  Something about the five-set format, the team unity, and the pressure/invigoration of playing for one’s country brings out the best in some unsuspecting players.  Who will it be this weekend? Could Milos lead the Canadians past the accomplished French team? Could the upstart Japanese make Davis Cup history against Croatia? Could the Swedish team find a miracle and cause the Serbian team to sweat? As cliche as it sounds, expect a new Davis Cup legend to be born.

2. Double Trouble

Davis Cup is the time for Doubles to shine, and this weekend is no different.  This weekend we have spectacular Doubles storylines: the reunions of fan favorites Fedrinka (Federer and Wawrinka) and Bendra (Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra), the eternal mystery of who the other Bryan Brother will be (Bob Bryan is home playing father duty, so either Mardy Fish, John Isner, or Ryan Harrison will take his place alongside Mike Bryan in Switzerland), and the always delightful Davis Cup return of BerdWorm (Berdych and Stepanek). Whether you’re a fan of doubles, awkwardness, hysteria, or just misplaced volleys, Saturday will be a special day for you.

1. The Cheerleaders

Let’s be honest- Davis Cup really isn’t about the tennis.  It’s about seeing the bromance on the benches as the fellow team members watch and frazzle along with us.  Nothing is as great as seeing a good cheerleader- whether it be Roger Federer on his feet urging on Stanislas Wawrinka, Juan Carlos Ferrero fist-pumping a Nicolas Almagro winner, or John Isner and Ryan Harrison embracing when Mardy Fish gets to set point, there is no better reason to watch Davis Cup than to inspect the camaraderie on the benches.

Roger Federer gets shaved

rfed-r1-wimbly-2011

So anyone excited about the Wimbledon tournament 2011?  I know I am! Even though the lack of a good Android app spoiled my fun just a little and the matches on the latter part of the first day got canceled I am still enjoying Wimbledon.  I watched Roger Federer’s first match versus Mikhail Kukushkin from Kazachstan.  For Federer it was just another day at the office and he beat the Kazachstanian in straight sets 7-6 6-4 and 6-2. It’s more what happened after the match, and I watched this on the BBC, that annoyed me greatly.

The BBC made it sound in their post match interview as if Federer had just won Wimbledon. Get a grip people, it’s just a first round match and there are many more to go before Federer wins his next Wimbledon. Enough about my annoyance and let’s get more down to the good stuff.

Roger Federer gets a shave in a very unique way.

High precision grooming on a grand scale. Gillette created and then shaved a giant image of tennis ace Roger Federer in a field in London.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynmKBFLmVWM&w=550&h=343&rel=0]

A Painful Defeat For Stanislas Wawrinka

BASEL

Stanislas Wawrinka suffered the most painful (6-3 6-7 6-7) defeat of the year at the hands of German qualifier Benjamin Becker and practically lost chances to book his place at the Masters Cup in Shanghai. Wawrinka couldn’t handle the pressure playing in front of the home crowd. Lost the second set despite a comfortable lead at 6-3 5:3 up and the third set despite 4:1 up and two match points on 6:5 on Becker’s serve. Wawrinka stayed positive after the bitter loss: “I’ve still had a great year and I have one more chance to qualify for Tennis Masters Cup when I compete in Paris next week”.

Swiss No. 1 Roger Federer surprsingly lost a set after wasting match point but finally won the match against Bobby Reynolds 6-3 6-7 6-3 without facing a break point in the whole match.

Other contenders to play in Shanghai: those with big opportunities like Juan Martin Del Potro and James Blake,  and those with  theoretical chances like Igor Andreev and David Nalbandian,  all won their 1st round matches without too much trouble
LYON

One out of 12 Frenchmen, who played in the 1st round in Lyon, Josselyn Ouanna has got his first ATP victory, beating former champion Ivan Ljubicic 6-7 7-6 6-4. Ljubic was serving for the match at 5:3 in the second set. In Lyon, likewise in Basel, three players fight for a spot in Masters Cup. All of them (Andy Roddick, Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) won first round matches. Madrid’s hero Gilles Simon needed a  three-setter again to win another match on the road to Shanghai. Defending champion Sebastian Grosjean playing first match since US Open, lost 7-6 4-6 4-6 to Robby Ginepri. In the next round Ginepri will face Andy Roddick for the 9th time in his career but for the first time in the European indoor season.

ST. PETERSBURG

Ernests Gulbis demolished Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 6-0 6-2 in just 51 minutes, serving 11 aces at 81% of the first serve and for the first time in the history, Latvian tennis will be represented by two players in the second round of an ATP tournament. Gulbis’ compatriot and peer, Karlis Lejnieks playing first ATP match in career beat Alexandre Koudriavtsev 3-6 7-6(1) 6-3. Lejnieks saved double match point at 5:6 (15-40) in the second set.

The Croats were unlucky in the first round : Mario Ancic lost to Jeremy Chardy 4-6 6-3 4-6 despite a 3:1lead in the third set, in turn Marin Cilic wasted two match points in the final set tie-break against unknown Kazakhstan qualifier Mikhail Kukushkin in a match which lasted 3 hours.

Basel – First Round
(1)Roger Federer (SUI) d. Bobby Reynolds (USA) 6-3 6-7(6) 6-3
Jarkko Nieminen (FIN) d. Eduardo Schwank (ARG) 6-2 6-4
Marcel Granollers (ESP) d. Marcos Baghdatis (CYP) 6-2 4-6 6-2
Simone Bolelli (ITA) d. (7)Tomas Berdych (CZE) 6-4 7-5
(4)James Blake (USA) d. Nicolas Kiefer (GER) 3-6 6-3 6-4
Oscar Hernandez (ESP) d. (q)Lukas Dlouhy (CZE) 7-6(6) 6-7(5) 6-1
Feliciano Lopez (ESP) d. (WC)Marco Chiudinelli (SUI) 7-6(5) 7-6(7)
(8)Mardy Fish (USA) d. Agustin Calleri (ARG) 7-6(5) 6-2
(6)Igor Andreev (RUS) d. Jurgen Melzer (AUT) 7-6(5) 7-5
Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER) d. Denis Gremelmayr (GER) 6-4 7-6(5)
(WC)Stephane Bohli (SUI) d. Jose Acasuso (ARG) 6-3 6-2
(3)Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) d. (q)George Bastl (SUI) 6-2 6-4
(q)Benjamin Becker (GER) d. (5)Stanislas Wawrinka (SUI) 3-6 7-6(5) 7-6(5) – 2 M.P.
(LL)Andreas Beck (GER) d. Nicolas Devilder (FRA) 6-4 6-4
(q)Kristof Vliegen (BEL) d. (WC)Philipp Petzschner (GER) 6-2 6-3
(2)David Nalbandian (ARG) d. Albert Montanes (ESP) 6-4 6-2

Lyon – First Round
(1)Andy Roddick (USA) d. Nicolas Mahut (FRA) 7-6(5) 6-4
Robby Ginepri (USA) d. (WC)Sebastien Grosjean (FRA) 6-7(4) 6-4 6-4
(q)Christophe Rochus (BEL) d. Gilles Muller (LUX) 6-2 6-4
(7)Robin Soderling (SWE) d. (q)Thierry Ascione (FRA) 6-4 6-1
(4)Gilles Simon (FRA) d. Juan Monaco (ARG) 2-6 6-4 6-1
Andreas Seppi (ITA) d. (q)David Guez (FRA) 6-2 7-5
(WC)Josselyn Ouanna (FRA) d. Ivan Ljubicic (CRO) 6-7(2) 7-6(5) 6-4
Nicolas Lapentti (ECU) d. (6)Ivo Karlovic (CRO) 7-6(4) 6-3
(8)Paul-Henri Mathieu (FRA) vs Guillermo Canas (ARG) 6-3 6-4
Juan Carlos Ferrero (ESP) d. Samuel Querrey (USA) 6-3 7-5
Fabrice Santoro (FRA) d. Fabio Fognini (ITA) 6-4 6-1
(3)Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) d. Marc Gicquel (FRA) 7-5 4-6 6-3
(5)Tommy Robredo (ESP) d. Michael Llodra (FRA) 6-4 6-3
Julien Benneteau (FRA) d. Arnaud Clement (FRA) 6-3 6-2
Steve Darcis (BEL) d. (WC)Radek Stepanek (CZE) 6-4 3-6 6-3
(2)Richard Gasquet (FRA) d. (q)Santiago Giraldo (COL) 5-7 6-3 7-6(3)

Basel – First Round
(1)Andy Murray (GBR) d. Viktor Troicki (SRB) 6-3 6-3
Ernests Gulbis (LAT) d. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez (ESP) 6-0 6-2
Janko Tipsarevic (SRB) d. Potito Starace (ITA) 6-3 7-6(4)
Jeremy Chardy (FRA) d. (7)Mario Ancic (CRO) 6-4 3-6 6-4
(3)Fernando Verdasco (ESP) d. (q)Teimuraz Gabashvili (RUS) 1-6 6-4 6-3
(WC)Karlis Lejnieks (LAT) d. (WC)Alexandre Koudriavtsev (RUS) 3-6 7-6(1) 6-3 – 2 M.P.
Rainer Schuettler (GER) d. Igor Kunitsyn (RUS) 6-2 6-3
Dominik Hrbaty (SVK) d. (6)Dmitry Tursunov (RUS) 6-1 6-1
(8)Marat Safin (RUS) d. Sergey Stakhovsky (UKR) 6-2 6-4
(q)Andrey Golubev (KAZ) d. Olivier Rochus (BEL) 6-1 6-4
(q)Michael Zverev (GER) d. Florent Serra (FRA) 6-4 6-2
(4)Mikhail Youzhny (RUS) d. Ivan Navarro-Pastor (ESP) 6-2 6-1
(q)Mikhail Kukushkin (KAZ) d. (5)Marin Cilic (CRO) 7-6(4) 4-6 7-6(6) – 2 M.P.
Victor Hanescu (ROU) d. Evgueni Korolev (RUS) 6-1 6-2
(WC)Michail Elgin (RUS) d. Filippo Volandri (ITA) 6-4 6-4
(2)Nikolay Davydenko (RUS) d. Chris Guccione (AUS) 6-4 6-4

Pavlyuchenkova Rises As Echagaray Rebounds

On the challenger circuit this week, a former number one junior continues to live up to the hype, a former top 35 player proves she’s well on her way to a comeback, and Mexico’s top ranked male player completely turns his year around.

Being successful on tour as a teenager is difficult. Just ask Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who’s been limited to 13 tournaments in the last year until she turns 17 this May. However, Pavlyuchenkova has simply milked the most out of the few events she can play. After winning the $25,000 tournament in Minsk earlier this month, she prevailed at this week’s $25,000 event in Moscow, dominating Ekaterina Dzehalevich of Belrarus 6-0 6-2 in the final. With this victory, Pavlyuchenkova’s ranking should be high enough to contest in the qualifying rounds at Roland Garros. Despite the loss, Dzehalevich has also been in a stretch of good form over the last six months as well. She won her first WTA doubles title at Tashkent last fall and won her first challenger singles title earlier this month in New Delhi.

At the $50,000 event in Latina, Iveta Benesova of the Czech Republic stormed through the draw this week. She dropped a total of 10 games on her way to the title, including an overwhelming victory over Sesil Karatantcheva of Bulgaria 6-0 6-2 in the final. With form like this, it shouldn’t be long before Benesova her former place among the world’s top 35. Despite the loss, Karatantcheva has had an extremely successful start to 2008. Since returning from a two year drug suspension, she’s posted a 27-3 record on the challenger circuit and won two events so far.

At the $25,000 event in Jersey, Elena Baltacha of Britain satisfied the home crowd by winning her 18th career title with a 6-1 6-3 defeat of Croatian Ana Vrljic. After enduring everything from financial hardships to a recurring liver problem that limits her playing schedule, the 25 year old is still determined to crack the main draws of Grand Slams on her own ranking, a pursuit that she filmed a documentary for the BBC in 2005 entitled “Project 104.”

In other challenger news on the women’s side, Kristina Barrois of Germany won her first title in over two years at the $25,000 event in La Palma, Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium won the $25,000 event in Tessenderlo, and American Carly Gullickson capped off a comeback from an injury which sidelined her for eight months by winning the $25,000 event in Pelham.

On the men’s side, Mikhail Kukushkin of Russia won his first challenger title of the year at the $50,000 event in Barletta by beating Boris Pashanski of Serbia 6-4 6-4. The Russian teenager showed his fortitude by coming through qualifying and prevailing in several tough three set matches throughout the week. This was also Pashanski’s best week of the year by far; he had endured a lackluster 2-7 record on the ATP Tour before turning the corner in his first challenger event of the year.

At the $50,000 event, Bruno Echagaray of Mexico won a thrilling 6-0 3-6 7-6 final over Ricardo Mello of Brazil. Prior to this week, Echagaray was winless so far in 2008, having lost in the first round of all seven events he played this year. The tournament also played host to former French Open finalist Guilermo Coria, who continues to try and come back from a career threatening shoulder injury. He lost in the first round to top seeded Werner Eschauer of Austria. Coria also received a wildcard into the challenger event in Napoli this week.

The men are hosting the biggest event next week with the $100,000 event in Napoli. Potito Starace of Italy will be the top seed there. Marcels Granollers of Spain also takes top billing at the $35,000 tournament in Saint Brieuc. On the women’s side, Petra Cetkovska of the Czech Republic leads the way at the $75,000 event in Torhout. Tzipi Obziler of Israel is the top seed at the $50,000 event in Patras, which will also host an exhibition match featuring Daniela Hantuchova. China’s Meng Yuan continues her strong 2008 campaign as the top seed at the $25,000 event in Pelham, Olivia Sanchez of France is top seed at the $25,000 tournament in Civatecchia, and Angelique Kerber of Germany hopes to bring her best out for the home fans at the $25,000 tournament in Hamburg.

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