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Mikhail Kukushkin, who one practised in an active prison as a junior, is determined to build a tennis legacy in Kazakhstan.

Mikhail Kukushkin: Hard Yards In Prison Reap Dividends

With exclusive insight, the Kazakhstani's love for competing continues to inspire

The ball toss of Mikhail Kukushkin shapes primarily over his head, flighted neither too far forward or limiting his spring into the court; his movement off his right leg to forehands is fast, the snap to the ball is determined by the positioning of his wrists. His take back is high, his racquet face open, while the economy of movement on his backhand wing sees him cut and dig to the ball. A remarkably consistent, compact shot that is immediately distinctive, and so often devastating when struck on the run.

It is a game that has taken him to the world stage, a style with which his long-time friends can quickly identify as a product of his upbringing on the limited courts of Volgograd, Russia, and now from the world-class facilities of Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, his home for the past 11 years. “There were times when I played in an empty swimming pool and on the wooden courts of an active prison, out of necessity; before school at 6 o’clock in the morning and after lessons — sometimes, instead of school,” Kukushkin exclusively told ATPTour.com.

“The opportunities to practise were limited, it was tough to rent a court or find someone to practise with, but, with the support of my father [Alexander], my coach from the age of six to 17, I persisted. When the sport got serious for me around 15, I couldn’t afford to play in junior Grand Slams or the Orange Bowl, so I had to limit my travel to tournaments in Russia and nearby countries.”

The sacrifice was real, with his father and mother [Tatiana] scrimping on food and on the purchase of new clothes, even for their daughter, Ekaterina, all in support of Kukushkin’s solitary, repetitive life and the hope of one day making it as a professional tennis player.

“It wasn't like my parents had to re-mortgage their house, but we really couldn't afford a lot, with limited budgets for everything,” remembers Kukushkin, who began travelling alone aged 17. “I always believed in myself that I could be a professional, but without their help I wouldn't be where I am. I never slept in a car like some players, simply because I wasn't able to afford a car and I travelled on a budget, so shared rooms and saved money on everything. My father always brought a machine to re-string racquets, so I didn't need to pay for them. He tried everything to save money. I just had one racquet, I couldn't afford to buy any more. I didn't choose the racquet I had, I just used it and would borrow my father’s if I needed a spare.

“When I started travelling to [ITF] Futures events in Russia, Uzbekistan or Belarus and I lost in the first round, I used to get small amounts of prize money, so I knew I couldn't travel to the next tournament. It was really tough at times. Somehow, I managed to win one match, occasionally win $500, travel to the next tournament and I got into the Top 100 at 22.”

To this day, the lithe and softly-spoken 31-year-old wouldn’t have it any other way, because it instilled in him discipline to work hard, and to never take anything for granted. He’s also always had the competitive drive.

“Even though I was one of the best juniors in Russia, in every age group, I received zero support and, as a result, I was not sure if I would become a professional, but I wanted to give it a try,” says Kukushkin. “I wasn’t from the tennis hub of Moscow, and the support structure wasn’t there yet. I was unable to get any sponsor contracts in Russia, and I had to go to shops to buy my racquets.

“I was struggling with my preparations, my practice and physio. I tried to be a professional, but I was always by myself or with my father. He was coaching junior players, so it was a new experience for him. He helped me a lot, but we had a lack of support and learned together. I grew up as a professional athlete too late. I believe if I had grown up [at the ages of 12-14, 17] with the right level of support now, I would be better. It's a little better structure now, but there was no money.”

The lack of funding from his homeland turned Kukushkin’s head to Kazakhstan in 2008, when one of the nation’s richest businessmen, Bulat Utemuratov, the long-time president of the tennis federation, who also now sits on the ITF Board of Directors, sold his vision of developing the sport, and its visibility, from the ground up.

“It was very difficult to leave my parents, who remain in Russia, but when Kazakhstan approached me, I was 20 years old and still ranked No. 150,” remembers Kukushkin. “Everyone around tennis thought I had Top 100 potential, but I couldn't make the breakthrough without the right level of professional preparation, physios, fitness and nutrition, as I was always alone.

“I could not predict what was going to happen, but I had belief in myself,” says Kukushkin on his transition to a new country. “I knew when I was No. 150 in the world that I was going up to a different level. I knew something good was going to happen. I knew I was a good player, but didn’t know how good.

“I didn't have experience at all when I first broke into the Top 100. I was not a professional athlete, I only knew about how to hit a tennis ball over the net. I didn't know I had to prepare, athletics stuff and the gym. I didn't go to the gym a lot as a teenager. I did exercises with my father, but Kazakhstan helped me to learn all those things. When I moved there, I had to buy a gym card and practised every day. They taught me to become a player. I learnt from listening. People told me I had the potential to be a Top 100 player, and I believed it, but until you break into the Top 100 you can only dream.”

The decision to switch paid dividends and for the past nine years, since he broke into the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings at No. 96 on 5 July 2010, Kukushkin has won one ATP Tour title [2010 St. Petersburg Open, d. Youzhny] from four finals — most recently at the 2019 Open 13 Provence (l. to Tsitsipas) — and had a Grand Slam championship-best fourth round run at the 2012 Australian Open, which included consecutive five-set victories over Gael Monfils and Viktor Troicki.

Riding high, it was during the Monfils win that Kukushkin sustained a left hip injury and his right hip soon broke down too, so in September and October 2012, he had two surgeries in as many weeks. “They repaired the damage and I was out for six months and I dropped to No. 430. When I started to play again in 2013, I was losing every first round. I was mentally down, also at ATP Challengers as well. It was tough to come back after the surgeries, but somehow, I won three Challenger titles [in Kosice, Istanbul and Izmir] and later that year I played an ATP Tour final in Moscow [l. to Gasquet]. The Kazakhstan Tennis Federation helped me with a physio and I got to play tournaments again. I owe the Federation a lot.”

Kukushkin rose to a career-high No. 39 on 25 February this year, but still doesn’t quite know what he needs to do to play his best tennis consistently. “I have tried to find that answer for many years,” admits Kukushkin, who has a 3-35 record against Top 10 opponents. “I don't know. Sometimes I play really great matches, then other times I lose really easily.” Without a full-time coach since 2016, when he teamed up with Guillermo Canas for six months, he now receives help from the federation at bigger tournaments and regularly travels on the ATP Tour with his girlfriend, Anastasia Usova, who provides the necessary off-court support and balance to Kukushkin’s primary objective: to compete and maximise on match day.

“She supports me, she believes in me and believes that I could be a better player,” says Kukushkin. "She knows that I have big potential and with that kind of support I have started to believe in myself as well. I’ve started to be more confident and a better player.

“I don’t want to have a coach that will just stand there, throw me balls and say, ‘good shot’. Of course, sometimes it isn’t easy to find someone to practise with or a coach to warm you up, but I’ve travelled alone since I was 17, so it’s not a problem. I am looking for a good coach though.”

As such, the pragmatic Kukushkin has developed a steely shell and a confidence in his own decision making. Away from the tramlines, he likes to read books, sight-see by way of escaping the four walls of his hotel room, and watch movies or television series online. His interactions on-site are limited to trusted friends, and his focus remains on fine tuning his well-oiled groundstrokes, his greatest strengths; assessing whether his string tension is optimal and ensuring he is fully prepared when he walks between the white lines.

In Nur-Sultan, he is at home; recognised, and feted. “Tennis was not popular in Kazakhstan, but Mr Utemuratov’s first step was to bring people to the few courts that existed,” says Kukushkin. "He developed the sport from zero and now they've built big professional tennis clubs in every city. The kids can now come and practise. I currently train at the National Tennis Centre, a great facility where we play Davis Cup ties and have a great record [Kazakhstan has won 11 of its past 12 home ties]. Football, boxing and ice hockey remain bigger sports, but the tennis legacy is growing for future generations.”

His legacy, in a country of 18 million people.