By Dave Gertler
(January 17, 2015) SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – Going into the 2015 Apia International final, Serbian Viktor Troicki looked a steady favorite. His opponent Mikhail Kukushkin, who like Troicki had started in qualifying rounds in Sydney – albeit as a seeded qualifier, unlike Troicki – had also won seven matches straight to reach the first all-qualifier final in ATP history, and also looked solid. The Kazakh had not dropped a set before Saturday’s final, while the Serb had required three sets to decide three of his seven wins in previous rounds.
While Kukushkin and Troicki – Nos. 51 and 54 in the world respectively – both beat a series of players ranked higher than them once reaching the main draw, Kukushkin had ousted defending champion Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarterfinals on Ken Rosewall Arena. Yet it was Troicki’s lower-profile come-from-behind quarter-final win on over Simone Bolelli that positioned him well for the semi-final and final. With Bolelli serving for the match in the final set, Troicki had needed to – and did – come up with something special to win the next three games, and the match. Perhaps the Serbian former world No. 12 carried some of the confidence from this win into his next two matches on Ken Rosewall Arena.
Initially, during Saturday night’s final, Kukushkin and Troicki were trading holds of serve comfortably until Troicki serving at 2-2 went down 0-30 and, instead of being broken, played and won the longest rally of the set to stop the bleeding in his service game, eventually holding serve convincingly for 3-2. Troicki would not lose another game that set, breaking Kukushkin for 4-2, then 6-2.
Serving at 1-2 in the second set – and after a game where Troicki had served three of his 13 total aces – Kukushkin started to grimace and look like he was experience difficulty moving, Troicki breaking Kukushkin’s serve, which had significantly slowed and kept getting slower towards the end of the match. 127km/h second serves were being consistently punished by the Serb, and were a stark contrast to the serving form Kukushkin had shown on Ken Rosewall Arena the previous two evenings to beat Del Potro and Gilles Muller.
“He was really defending well,” said Kukushkin of his opponent, “He was as well pushing a lot and he was playing really good today. He was serving amazing.”
Troicki broke and consolidated for a 4-1 lead, and the match looked like it would be over in less than an hour, then Kukushkin called for a medical timeout. “He broke my rhythm a little bit at 4-1 in the second set,” said Troicki, “He took a medical timeout, and I felt I was close, you know, close to finishing the match. He started hitting the ball pretty sweet and fast. Didn’t want to rally too much. He played few good shots; I missed some. Yeah, that was when he broke me.”
Troicki ended up giving the break back to Kukushkin, but that would be the last game Kukushkin would win, Troicki taking the match, and his first title since 2010, 6-2, 6-3.
“Very happy. Yeah, a lot of emotions actually,” said Troicki, whose only other title came in Moscow in 2010, and who has now been back on tour for six months from a year-long doping suspension, “It’s been a tough road, a lot of work, and it paid off with a nice title. If I look back where I was like five, six months ago it’s amazing to have a title already. So it’s really nice moment for me and for all my team. I really, it’s very emotional. Yeah, that’s all I can say.”
In an even stranger twist of fate, Troicki’s first-round opponent at the Australian Open on Monday will be Czech Jiri Vesely who also won a tournament from qualifying in Auckland, this week.
Dave Gertler is a tennis journalist, player and musician based in Sydney and is covering the Australian summer of tennis for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his personal Twitter @davegertler, read his blog, and listen to his podcast, Tennis Days .