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Kazakhstan imports look to keep Russian accent on Davis Cup

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Defending champions Russia may have been expelled from the Davis Cup, but the pariah state can still have an impact on this year's final thanks to a Russian-dominated Kazakhstan team.

Alexander Bublik, Mikhael Kukushkin, Dmitry Popko and Andrey Golubev were all born in Russia but switched allegiance to neighbouring Kazakhstan. Each has been dismissed as a 'Rent-a-Russian'.

The fifth member of the squad, which faces Norway in the qualifying round in Oslo on Friday and Saturday, is Aleksandr Nedovyesov who was born in Crimea, occupied by Russia since 2014.

That was the year Nedovyesov started to represent his new country despite already having debuted in the Davis Cup in 2005 for Ukraine.

The breathless border-hopping has been financed by Kazakhstan Tennis Federation chief Bulat Utemuratov, estimated by Forbes last year to be worth $3.5 billion.

It has paid off in terms of national prestige with Kazakhstan reaching the Davis Cup quarter-finals on six occasions since 2011.

Bublik, 24, reached a career high in the world rankings of 30 on the back of his maiden ATP title in Montpellier in February.

He switched to Kazakhstan in 2016 but still lives in Russia.

"As hurtful as it may sound, nobody cared about me in Russia. And now people care about me. And they do everything for my career to be successful," said Bublik, born in Gatchina, just south of Saint Petersburg.

Kazakhstan's top three is rounded out by fellow Russians – 160th-ranked Kukushkin from Volgograd and St Petersburg native Popko, currently at 171 in the world.

Top 30 doubles player Andrey Golubev was born in Volzhskiy, close to Volgograd.

In 2008, just after changing nationality at the age of 23, he even became Kazakhstan's first ATP singles champion when he captured the Hamburg clay court title.

Kukushkin, now 34, switched in 2008 while Popko played his first tie for his adopted home in 2017.

"At that time I was around 150 in the world and I was struggling," said Kukushkin whose career high of 39 came in 2019.

"I was not in good shape in that moment, but I knew that I could play better, much better and I can get to the other level.

"But I didn't have any opportunity for that. Unfortunately in Russia nobody was interested in me. Kazakhstan came to me and they provided everything, practice conditions, coaches."

Kazakhstan has also raided the women's tour for talent.

World number 20 Elena Rybakina was born in Moscow and made the quarter-finals at the French Open last year under her new flag.

Kazakh number two is Yulia Putintseva, another Moscow native and a three-time quarter-finalist at the majors.

Meanwhile, in other Davis Cup qualifiers on Friday and Saturday, 32-time champions the United States host Colombia in Reno.

France also face South American opposition against Ecuador in Paris, while Germany are in Rio to take on Brazil.

Six-time champions Spain will be without Rafael Nadal for their home tie in Marbella against Romania.

That will leave the similarly muscular Carlos Alcaraz, the 18-year-old heir to the Nadal throne, to help his team to what's expected to be a comfortable win against a Romanian team whose top player is 261st-ranked Marius Copil.

Other ties include Australia facing Hungary in Sydney and South Korea taking on Austria in Seoul.

The winners of the 12 ties this weekend will all progress to the finals scheduled to take place in November.

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