The opening match of the main draw of the Maharashtra Open hosted by Pune was played between two gutsy customers, Mikhail Kukushkin and Radu Albot. The difference between their ATP rankings is just eight, and their tight encounter was a testament to the same. World Number 74, Kukushkin, progressed to the second round in straight sets but had to pass a stern test for the same.
The Kazakhstani won 6-2, 6-6 over his lower-ranked colleague.
The match began with a long and tiring game, where Albot had to work extremely hard to hold on to his serve. Kukushkin notched up two break points in the game, but the Kazakhstani was unable to capitalize on the opportunities.
The first four games of the set went down the same street, where the server was put under tremendous pressure by the receiver, but ultimately managed to keep himself on the scoreboard, without losing serve.
The first blood was drawn by the Kazakhstani in the fifth game of the set, where, he broke to love. The Moldovan suddenly seemed to lose his edge after that and disintegrated in the rest of the set to give Kukushkin and a double break for 5-2.
The Kazakhstani was under the pump while serving out the set and lost his first serve immediately. However, a beautifully disguised drop-shot did wonders for his confidence as well as his chances in the game. Albot fought hard though and did not give in to the substantial setback. He took Kukushkin to deuce. However, the latter managed to keep his nerves on the set point to pocket the set with a powerful, unreturned first serve.
Both the players missed numerous opportunities in the set. The fact that only two of the ten break points generated in the set were converted into breaks indicates the same. However, Kukushkin brought his eleven years of tour experience into play and managed to get one over Albot in the big moments. The 30-year-old’s world-class forehand reared its powerful head throughout the match and came to his aid in dire moments.
He started the next set with the same fire and intensity, while looking to bury Albot immediately. He was successful in his attempt. Two double faults from the Moldovan didn’t help his case either, as he ended up losing his serve in the opening game of the second set.
It looked like the remainder of the game would be characterized by one-way traffic, but the fight from Albot surprised everyone present in the stadium. They got behind him and supported the 28-year-old with tumultuous noise. He responded to their cheers with some sublime shots and suddenly looked threatening in the middle. His approach shots, in particular, were beautiful to watch and his quick court coverage was impressive and effective.
His persistence was rewarded in the eighth game of the set, where he nullified the break advantage to bring himself right back into the competition. He consolidated it with a hold in his next service game without capitulating to Kukushkin’s endless fight from the other end. He produced a riveting passing shot to win the game and his roar thereafter confirmed how important the hold was, in the context of the game.
The set went to a tie-break and it looked like the momentum was tilted slightly in the favour of Albot, who was pressing and prodding consistently.
However, Kukushkin kept serving his way out of trouble whenever he found himself in it. He made great use of his first and second serves when staring down the barrel of a shotgun. He brought his A game into the tie-break. He smashed two terrific back-to-back forehands to get the decisive mini-break and then followed it up with a successful challenge at a crucial junction of the game.
His patience and precision paid off, and the Kazakhstani now awaits the winner of the match between Laslo Djere and Marius Copil. He won his first and only ATP event at Saint Petersberg back in 2010. He has a golden opportunity to repeat that story in Pune, more so with being the seventh seed at the competition.Published 01 Jan 2018, 16:49 IST