Update 8.10pm: Mikhail Kukushkin has ended the run of Juan Martin del Potro at Apia International Sydney 2015 to advance to the semifinals.
Kukushkin, a qualifier, overcame the big hitting Argentine in two tight tie-break sets, 7-6(5) 7-6(3), his sixth consecutive match win.
“I’m pretty happy to have so many wins here in Sydney. It’s really important for me to start season to get some points, to get some wins against good players. Especially before Grand Slam it’s very important for me,” Kukushkin said.
Del Potro, who had been playing in his first tournament since February 2014 due to a wrist injury, never looked quite as smooth as he did in his first two matches here.
He appeared to favour his slice backhand throughout but managed to stick with Kukushkin, who having come through qualifying had a significant advantage in terms of match fitness.
“It was a tough match. I think he deserve to win because he played better than me in the tiebreak. The match was close for both. I served well, but my wrist hurts a little bit more than yesterday, and I couldn’t hit harder than my last match,” del Potro reflected.
“He played very smart. He was all the time playing to my backhand and playing slices. I think anyway it’s a great week for me.”
The Argentine showed signs of frustration, roaring when he misses a sliced backhand wide in the fifth game of the first set, later debating a line call with the chair umpire and then threatening to hurl his racquet after an error in the ninth game, which Kukushkin won on serve to edge ahead 5-4.
With Kukushkin returning almost five metres behind the baseline, del Potro was able to continue holding his own service games; the set progressed to a tiebreak.
Despite del Potro scoring the first minibreak when Kukushkin committed a volley error, the Argentine’s own errors would ultimately haunt him, handing the qualifier a one-set lead.
The second set was incredibly close, most notably the fourth game, which featured several entertaining yet searching rallies that left del Potro on his haunches.
“I was exhausted for sure. It was my longest rally on my comeback. I wanted to stop the match there,” he laughed.
“But also was hot weather. We played long rallies. I’m not ready for that yet. So anyway, I’m happy to do that. The crowd enjoyed that moment. I enjoyed a lot, too.”
Still he fought on, the exertion audible as he tried to crush forehand blows past his incredibly speedy opponent; Kukishkin did a wonderful job of absorbing the pace and keeping his unforced error tally low.
With still neither player managing to secure even one break point for the match, the second set also progressed to a tiebreak.
Here, Kukushkin surged to a 5-2 lead and an error from the defending champion set up a match point for the Russian, who converted on his own serve.
Del Potro will now head to Melbourne to continue his comeback at the Australian Open while Kukushkin will play fifth seed Leonardo Mayer, who overcame No.4 seed Julien Benneteau of France in straight sets.
“It was very important to get to the tiebreak, and in the tiebreak just to fight until very last point,” Kukushkin said.
“I was just trying not make mistake, play aggressive when I can, and I’m pretty happy with my game today.”