Only two people in the stadium knew the ball was in. Karan Rastogi was one of them. The chair umpire was not the other. The Indian player was down a match point, in the quarterfinals of the men’s singles tennis event at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. He took a chance, throwing his racquet to return a booming serve, getting a sweet connection to hit the ball down the line for a winner. But it was called ‘out.’
What followed will always be the defining moment of the match, and a glimpse into the integrity instilled in a career that has now reached its 13th year. Denis Istomin, Rastogi’s opponent, told the umpire the ball was on the line and conceded his match point. “Everybody froze for a moment because nobody could believe what Istomin had just done. This was a quarterfinal and a win guarantees you a medal. Not many would have done such a thing. I wouldn’t have either. But that just shows you what kind of a person he is,” Rastogi says. Istomin still went on to win the match and eventually ended up with a silver medal, and a special Asian Games award for fair play. “It was just a symbol of his humility,” Rastogi adds.
It’s a characteristic the former world no. 33 has carried with him wherever the professional tour has taken him. He’ll bring it with him to Bangalore next week, when he spearheads the Uzbekistan Davis Cup team for the second round Asia/Oceania Group 1 tie.
There’s a special fondness the 30-year-old has for the team competition. In 2001, Istomin was involved in a car crash that broke his leg and kept him in hospital for three months. Doctors began doubting whether he would ever play again. Two years later, he was back on court. But it was at the Davis Cup in 2005 against Indonesia that he got a chance to make his debut and found his first true calling in the sport. “I had just come back from the accident. I played one year of Futures and some Challengers, but not much. It was a big help for my career. I won two matches and started to feel that I can compete in five-set matches. It was a good call from the team that they believed in me,” Istomin tells the Indian Express before landing in Bangalore.
Since then, he’s played in each and every Davis Cup tie his country has been involved in, forging a 45-26 record in singles and doubles matches over 27 ties – which means playing five sets on all three days of the tie most of the times. “You don’t think about having to play too much in five-set matches. Just go out and play,” he says. “It’s very important to represent and to win the match for the country. It’s a different feeling when you play on the ATP tour or a Grand Slam.”
Yet for someone of his talent, he hasn’t had a very successful run in Grand Slams, though he did manage to reach the fourth round of the Australian Open earlier this year, after pulling off the upset of the tournament. In the second round, he beat world no. 2 and defending champion Novak Djokovic in five sets.
It was the biggest win of his career. His young country, which came into being in 1991 after splitting from the former Soviet Union, erupted in celebration. “He is the leader of Uzbek tennis and the most successful player in the history of Uzbekistan,” team captain Petr Lebed says. “Tennis became popular because of his victories. Many people in the world heard about Uzbekistan after his win (against Djokovic), and a lot of people recognise him,” adds Lebed, who gave Istomin his first Davis Cup call-up.
It brought for him recognition in the media he hadn’t quite been used to outside his country. All of a sudden, people wanted to know more about him, and particularly about his flashy fluorescent green-framed prescribed eyewear during the Australian Open. “I have tried contact lenses, but they bother me. The problem is only in one eye. It’s not very good and I cannot see too far,” he said.
Meanwhile on court at the Rod Laver Arena, he wasted no time in thanking his team, particularly his lifelong coach — his mother, Klaudiya Istomina. He later joked: “The good thing is that I don’t need to pay the coach extra.” Rastogi has seen how the mother-son pair’s strong bond plays a role during their work on court. It’s in contrast to the not uncommon sight of an overbearing parent adding extra tension to a player’s shoulders.
“In those pressure situations, he’d look up at the coach, and she’d just smile, and he’d relax. That’s it. That chemistry just seemed to have worked and they’re enjoying themselves,” Rastogi says.
Back home, the attention is all on him during the tennis season, especially at tournaments held in the Central Asian nation. “Each and every billboard in the city has a poster of Denis. He never misses the home tournaments and he’s the overwhelming crowd favourite and people come only to watch him, including their tennis federation president,” says Sunder Iyer, an Indian tournament organiser closely associated with Uzbekistan tennis.
“At the same time, when some of the close calls go Istomin’s way, he tells the umpire if it is incorrect.” At a Challenger event in Tashkent in 2015, Istomin came up against current India no. 2 Yuki Bhambri in the semi-final. “Yuki was serving to save a break point, and he hit an ace on second serve. The umpire called it a double fault, but Istomin said it was in,” Iyer recalls.
It’s during those moments that the crowd gets to appreciate Istomin for who he is beyond the tennis player. Though his name is remembered, his face gets forgotten when tournaments aren’t on. “People know me by the name. But they don’t see me in the country (he trains in Moscow). For example, if I sit in a taxi, and we talk and they question me when they know I’m a tennis player. They ask ‘do you know Denis Istomin?’ I say ‘yes, I know this guy’,” says the world No.70.
He won’t really be an anonymous threat for India in the Davis Cup. So much so that one of the reasons Bangalore, with an elevation of 920 metres, was chosen as the venue was to counter his flat groundstrokes. “The ball bounces a bit more at higher altitudes, so it might be a bit difficult for him to adjust to,” said India coach Zeeshan Ali when it became apparent Uzbeks were the next opponents.
Plotting against Istomin isn’t new for the Indian team. Rastogi remembers the clash in 2007, when he made his debut. “It’s been 10 years now, and back then too Istomin was the one we had to beat. Defeat him, and the tie is in the bag,” he says. A spot in the World Group playoffs is what the teams are playing for. And the Indians, under the guidance of new team captain Mahesh Bhupathi, will hope to have found a formula. For, leading a group of Central Asians out of the Bangalore airport will be 6-foot-2 bespectacled Denis, India’s menace. “It’s going to be tough to beat India in India. But we’re coming in trying to win.”