Today they are one of the great tennis nations, but Russia’s Davis Cup debut was more than half a century overdue. The political ups and downs that marked the country’s turbulent history throughout the 20th century meant that under the flag of the Soviet Union, Russian tennis did not appear in the competition until the 1960s. Since then, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new generation has risen to take the title for Russia in 2002 and 2006.
It began in May 1962 in Scheveningen, a coastal district of The Hague; Russia made its Davis Cup debut. The flag and colours that heralded that group of three players born before or during the Second World War were those of the Soviet Union (USSR) and they beat the Dutch in a 0-5 victory. Just two weeks later, their visit to Florence, with only two players in their ranks, ended very differently: the Italy of legends like Nicola Pietrangeli beat them 5-0.
A place in the World Group
In 1981, the competition took a turn when a change in format created a World Group in which the best nations would share a single pool from the first round, and in 1982 the USSR entered the competition.
But they would have to wait two more decades for their greatest moments in the Davis Cup.
Competing under the Russian flag, they reached the final in both 1994 and 1995, losing to Sweden and the United States respectively. The team included a very young Evgeny Kafelnikov, just 20 years old, and who would become world number one in years to come. Joining Kafelnikov, Alexander Volkov and Andrei Olhovskiy were the stars of a team capable of beating Germany, the Czech Republic and Australia.
Following those two consecutive finals, Russia had to wait a few more years for any further Davis Cup celebrations. After losing the semi-final to Australia in 1999, their great moment finally arrived three years later in 2002. In the multi-purpose pavilion of Paris Bercy, Russia was determined to finally lift the trophy.
By that time, Kafelnikov was joined by the only other Russian to achieve the world number one ranking, Marat Safin. And with Mikhail Youznhy – in the world's top 10 – as third man, the challenge facing France in front of a home crowd was daunting. Although a talented quartet of Sébastien Grosjean, Nicolas Escudé, Fabrice Santoro and Paul Henri Mathieu fought to the end, the Russians could finally inscribe their names on the list of winners with a 2-3 victory. Youznhy, 20 years old and a last-minute substitute for Kafelnikov, clinched the victory point in the fifth match after a 2-2 tie.
"It’s one of the best times of my career, but it’s not my hour it’s our team’s victory," said Youznhy at the end, while an exhilarated Safin made everyone smile by saying that the title was "better than sex!".
Two finals, two outcomes
2006 and 2007 saw Russia reach the final again but with different results. In 2006 the title once again fell to them, this time in front of a home crowd in Moscow, but in 2007, the United States – with world number one Andy Roddick – denied them their third title.
In Moscow, the atmosphere had been one of celebration all weekend. A party for Russian tennis that finally witnessed a Davis Cup final on its soil.
Russia’s best hope at that time, in a team now without Kafelnikov, was a new top-10 player, Nikolay Davydenko; he and Safin were to play the singles. The opposition on this occasion was Argentina, looking for their first title with none other than David Nalbandian, who had won the ATP Masters Cup the previous year.
And once again, the excitement would last until the very end. After victories for both Davydenko and Nalbandian on the Friday, the Russians, with Safin and Dimitry Tursunov in the doubles, took the lead by beating Nalbandian and Agustin Calleri.
On the Sunday, it was the turn of the two number one players and a four-set victory for Nalbandian meant that there would be a fifth and deciding match. Safin was going to have the chance to win a second title for Russia in front of home fans. He was up against Jose Acasuso, and after four sets, with the last going to a tie-break, he could finally raise his arms in victory before embracing the rest of the team.
"I was sure Acasuso would play, and I was sure Marat would beat him," explained Shamil Tarpishchev, the Russian captain, at the end. "Marat is a fighter. He has experience and knows well what to do and when to do it to reach his goal. That's what Acasuso lacks."
"There were some very difficult moments today,” explained Safin. “It was tough to control the match. Everything worked out, thank God. I was under pressure and I was pretty scared. I didn't want to let this cup go away."
In the months that followed in 2007, the Russians beat Chile, France and Germany to reach the final and with it a trip to Portland, Oregon. This time they were without Safin but with Davydenko again as number one and Youznhy as number two. But the Americans, on a fast court, sealed victory with a 3-0 win to finally finish 4-1.
A new generation ready to shine
After making it to the final in 2008 and the quarter-finals in 2009, Russia entered a less successful period in the competition, awaiting a new generation of players capable of facing the world's best.
They lost their place in the World Group, but in 2018 the change in the competition format was approved and they reached the Qualifiers by ranking.
By then, a new and brilliant generation was knocking on the door of the world's top ten. Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev and Karen Khachanov have already shown that they are here to stay and in 2019 they were strong contenders and will be again in 2021. Reaching the semi-finals last year in Madrid put the title within reach, especially considering they achieved this feat despite the last-minute loss of their number one player, Medvedev.
Their victory over Serbia in the quarter-finals with a deciding third-set tie-break in the doubles – with Novak Djokovic on court – is already part of tennis history. And no one doubts that there will be many more to come.