Bring on Borat! Now Murray faces the man from Kazakhstan
Andy Murray's impressive progress
here at the Australian Open will be challenged on Monday by a man
playing under the flag of Kazakhstan with a story to tell beyond the
imagination of the scriptwriters of the film Borat.
Mikhail Kukushkin, ranked No 92 in
the world, has placed the country Sacha Baron Cohen satirised on film –
to the disgust of the Kazakhstan government – on the tennis map.
Not even Cohen would have dared
suggest that the unlikeliest man to appear in the fourth round at this
Australian Open would be coached by his wife.
Moving well: Murray his happy with his game
Murray has invested heavily in hiring Ivan Lendl, an eight-times major champion, to access his vast knowledge in the search for a Grand Slam title.
Kukushkin, meanwhile, admits to his dependence on the expertise of Anastasia Ulikhina, a graduate of Spartak Moscow tennis club and Moscow University.
'She helps with everything, my strategy, my technique, my athletic preparation, but, as my wife, she doesn't want to take money from me,' he said, unwittingly unleashing the spirit of fictional journalist Borat.
Threat: Mikhail Kukushkin is already a giantkiller
Kukushkin was born in Volgograd, Russia, but was amicably poached by the Kazakhstan Federation to gain funding in return for bolstering the country's tennis profile via a cordial agreement that has survived the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
He is clearly unafraid for his wife to be pitting her wits against the combined wisdom of Lendl and Murray, a finalist at Melbourne Park these past two Australian summers.
'There's not so many people who can understand this, or believe it,' said Kukushkin, who removed the dangerous Frenchman Gael Monfils from Murray's path on Saturday with his greatest-ever victory – 6-2, 7-5, 5-7, 1-6, 6-4.
Biggest victory: Kukushkin can't believe he's knocked out Gael Monfils
'Yet for me, it's a great relationship. It's important for me to know I can believe in my coach and know she is interested only in my results, not money. Of course, sometimes we can fight on the practice court but it's normal, nothing special.'
With a quarter-final place at stake, against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Nel Nishikori, Murray will not underestimate the threat of the husband and wife team.
The 24-year-old British star dropped a set against Kukushkin in Brisbane three weeks ago.
'In the first six games he was unbelievable, hardly missing a ball,' recalled Murray.
Happy with life: Andy Murray (right) saw off Michael Llodra (left) with ease
Murray's own game sparkled on Saturday and he won a host of admirers as he used skill, intuition and intelligence to overwhelm the serve-and-volley game of Michael Llodra 6-4, 6-2, 6-0.
John McEnroe, broadcasting for an Australian cable network, purred: 'This was as well as I have ever seen Andy serve. He had power, good percentages and it all worked today.'
However, Murray has been here frequently in the past and understands that everything is still to play for.
If he wins his next two matches, he will probably be confronted by Novak Djokovic, who won three of the four Grand Slam championships last year.
'They don't give out trophies for playing well in the third round,' said Murray wisely.
Rough and tumble: Murray somersaults on court
In his seat behind the baseline, Lendl studiously watched Murray at work and he reserves his thoughts exclusively for Murray.
For the past week, they have conducted their practice sessions in private at the Kooyong Club, which used to host the Australian Open in the days before Lendl won his two titles Down Under in 1989 and 1990.
'We don't get rushed off the courts at Kooyong as you do on-site here at the tournament,' explained Murray.
At 24, he is aware that he is arriving at his peak.
'Because the game is more physically demanding, you are going to play your best between 24 and 28,' he acknowledged.
'Hopefully, my best tennis is still ahead of me.'
Lendl's willingness to join Murray's team is an indication he shares the same instinct.
Studious: Ivan Lendl (right) and Danny Valverdu (left) observe Murray
The 51-year-old, Czech-born American has kept their partnership on a strictly business level, however.
After their job is done for the day, he disappears to a golf course or meets old friends, leaving Murray in the company of his entourage, including girlfriend Kim Sears.
'We've been keeping it low key,' admitted Murray.
His father Will is here for the first time, a recipient of a gift package of flight ticket and hotel accommodation from Murray and his brother Jamie.
'Dad is due to go back to Scotland on Thursday, but I hope to keep him a bit longer,' said Murray.
Llodra testified to the legitimacy of such an ambition.
'Andy's passing shots were amazing, I couldn't do anything,' he confessed.
Pass master: Llodra could not deal with Murray's passing game
Between them, until Llodra's mind left the court due to mental exhaustion, the pair provided a classic duel, the type of which we thought had been lost in the mists of time.
That's my man: Murray's girlfriend Kim Sears cheers him on
Murray might have been Lendl keeping McEnroe's net-rushing game at bay as Llodra continually strode forward.
'Lendl was most people's nightmare,' suggested McEnroe. 'Not many
people can say they beat him 15 times like I did – but then I lost to
him 21 times.'
At times during the match, Murray even allowed himself a rare smile; the entertainment was that good.
Yet he warns not to expect a reprise of the good-time Andy routine against Kukushkin.
'Because Llodra was having a bit of fun, I was open to that, but most of the time you have to get your game-face on,' he said.
HOW LONG WERE THEY COURTING
Kukushkin, who is coached by his wife Anastasia Ulikhina, was born in
Volgograd on Boxing Day 1987 and turned professional in 2006.
Last year was his first Wimbledon – he lost to Roger Federer in the first round.
His wife is a tennis player herself, having represented the Spartak Moscow club and Moscow University.
who rose to a highest-ever world ranking of 58 in September last year,
admits the pair do fight on court during practice.
'I am 99 per cent sure there won't
be many laughs and joking around against Kukushkin. He is very
workmanlike and you have to do a job. I have been in this position,
played well then lost in the fourth round. Other times, I have not
played my best and got through to the semis.
'I moved well against Llodra and that's a good sign because when I move
well, the rest of my game goes well. That was the most pleasing thing
Yet Murray, like Lendl, will have forgotten in the first light of a new dawn what happened here on Saturday.
Llodra is history and what matters now is preparing to erase the new screenplay Kukushkin has written for his adopted homeland of Kazakhstan.
He certainly despises Borat – the film which grossed more than 6million in a weekend when it opened in Britain.
'I don't think it's good to have a movie like this for the people of Kazakhstan,' said Kukushkin, sternly.