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Kukushkin Has Sights Set On ATP Challenger Tour Finals

Sao Paulo, Brazil

Kukushkin© Getty ImagesMikhail Kukushkin won his maiden ATP World Tour title at the 2010 St. Petersburg Open.

With players jockeying to secure the remaining berths at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, as the Emirates ATP Race to London nears its home stretch, a similar battle is emerging on the ATP Challenger Tour. Seven spots are up for grabs with the Challenger Tour Finals, to be held on outdoor clay at the Sociedade Harmonia de Tenis from 13-17 November, in Sao Paulo, drawing near.

Currently sitting tied for the coveted seventh and final spot in the year-to-date Challenger rankings is former World No. 49 Mikhail Kukushkin

Obstacles often breed opportunity. For Kukushkin, nothing epitomises that more than his journey to return to prominence following hip surgery a year ago. 

Nearly 15 months removed from the seminal moment of his career, when he edged Mikhail Youzhny for his maiden ATP World Tour crown at the St. Petersburg Open, Kukushkin reached his first Grand Slam Round of 16 at the 2012 Australian Open, the first ever by a Kazakh man. He upset a pair of seeds, including Gael Monfils, before being forced to retire against Andy Murray with a right hip injury.

Persistent pain would hinder Kukushkin’s ascent up the Emirates ATP Rankings the rest of the year and his agility and confidence suffered. “I had pain all year in my hip,” said Kukushkin. “I did try to play my best during the 2012 season, but I had so much pain."

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In an attempt to mitigate his circumstances, the Astana native decided to undergo surgery in early October of last year. He says he feels much better now, but admits that returning to action three months later and playing at a high level was an immense task. “I lost confidence after being out of tennis and lost a lot of matches, but I believed in myself, that I can come back stronger than before. Challengers have helped me a lot to get back in the Top 100 and give me a lot of confidence.”

After seeing his Emirates ATP Ranking drop to No. 324, Kukushkin’s comeback campaign began to coalesce in mid-June when he reached consecutive ATP Challenger Tour finals, winning the title in Kosice. The 25 year old would go on to advance to the final on home soil, in Astana, a month later and his 2013 would reach a fulfilling crescendo in late August when he qualified for the US Open and proceeded to the third round without relinquishing a set. They were his first tour-level victories in nearly a year.  

His confidence galvanised from his run in New York, Kukushkin headed to Turkey a week later, where he would go on to hoist back-to-back trophies, in Istanbul and Izmir, establishing an 11-match winning streak and joining the ’10 title club’ on the ATP Challenger Tour. 

“The US Open (run) gave me a lot,” added Kukushkin. “Finally I saw that I can play well on that level and for sure it gave me a lot of confidence before the two Challengers in Turkey, and really helped me there.”Kukushkin

Reaching the Challenger Tour Finals has become a goal for the rejuvenated Kazakh as the year has progressed. “(Qualifying) is important for me. It’s a new experience. It’s a good event at the end of the year. When I won three titles this year I realised I can get into the Challenger Finals and I am looking forward to playing there.”

Despite his recent success, Kukushkin recognises the stiff competition as the battle to qualify heats up. “There are good players in the Challenger race and it’s going to be hard to qualify. I hope I can play good the next month to get enough points. I think I have a good chance.”

The Russian-born Kazakh began playing tennis at the age of six. He would move to Kazakhstan in 2008, two years after turning pro, and has been playing under the flag ever since. Kukushkin has been a stalwart on Kazakhstan’s Davis Cup squad as well, posting a 12-6 record in singles and leading his country to four consecutive World Group appearances. 

“It means a lot for me to play Davis Cup for my country,” Kukushkin said. “It’s an incredible feeling. It’s impossible to describe it. I always have a lot of emotions playing Davis Cup and we did well last year. I hope we can play even better next year.”

Kukushkin is hoping to build off his 2013 success with a strong 2014 season. His primary goals? “To stay healthy and to try to come back to the place where I was before the injury—the Top 50.”

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