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ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Aisam-ul-Haq in action against Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan on Friday.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Aisam-ul-Haq in action against Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan on Friday.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan and Uzbekistan were tied after the first day action of their Davis Cup Asia Oceania Group I second round clash after ace home player Aisam-ul-Haq conceded his match due to hand cramps but his compatriot Aqeel Khan hit back with a win to level the tie here at Pakistan Sports Complex grass courts on Friday.

Pakistan were off to a wrong-footed start and went 1-0 down when dashing Aisam, after a nerve-wracking fight in the first set against highly ranked Uzbek player Denis Istomin which went upto record breaking 36-point tie break, conceded his match due to constant cramps in his right hand.

Aisam was unable to continue and conceded the match to Istomin, the world number 83.

In the second match, though, the hosts looked desperate for victory and all eyes were on 38-year-old Aqeel. And he did not disappoint his fans, winning 6-7(6), 6-4,6-4 in a nail-biting contest against the 23-year-old Sanjar Fayziev that lasted for two hours and 25 minutes.

Aqeel was simply brilliant with his show and kept Pakistan’s hopes alive in the tie against the 370-ranked Fayziev. The Davis Cup tie will conclude on Saturday after a double and two reverse singles events.

In the first set, Aqeel and his opponent displayed superb game in first set holding their serve, exhibiting excellent tennis by playing powerful strokes comprising classic drop shots.

However, on tie break, Fayziev won the first set 7-6(6), ringing alarm bells for Pakistan. In the second set, however, both players held their first serves but in the third game, Aqeel firing on all cylinders stunned his opponent with an array of excellent return shots, winning the set 6-4.

Veteran Aqeel Khan plays a forceful shot during his Davis Cup match.—White Star
Veteran Aqeel Khan plays a forceful shot during his Davis Cup match.—White Star

In the decider, both players displayed aggressive game but Aqeel broke the second serve of his opponent to make it 2-1 and from then on maintained his lead to make the score 3-1.

Fayziev then made a resounding comeback, reducing Aqeel’s lead. Before entering the 10th game, the score was 5-4 with Aqeel just one point ahead. In the 10th game, which turned out to be the final game, the Uzbek players had Aqeel on the backfoot with his speed, earning leading points (40-0). but just when he was just one stroke away to win the game, Aqeel enjoying full support of the tennis lovers present at the venue, earned five successive points to take the third and final set 6-4.

“Today, I am very happy. My experience on grass courts and my serves helped me to achieve this crucial win,” Aqeel told Dawn after the contest.

He said that Saturday’s doubles will decide the fate of the tie. “ I think the victory in doubles is highly important for both teams,” he said and added that he along with Aisam will make every efforts to win that. “My opponent was world number 370, and I am not in world 1700 best players in singles, so you can imagine it was not an easy task at all for me,” he said.

Istomin fails to catch up with Aisam’s backhand.—White Star
Istomin fails to catch up with Aisam’s backhand.—White Star

Former Davis Cupper Hameed-ul-Haq was all praise for Aqeel. “In the recent years, I have not seen such a brilliant performance from Aqeel, and now I am hopeful that Pakistan can win this tie,” he said.

Earlier, in the first match of the day, which was one of the most interesting Davis Cup clashes on Pakistan soil, Aisam and his opponent were both outstanding from the start, holding their serves and giving tough time to each other with bullet-like aces and and drop shots.

In the first set lasting over an hour, both the players were not ready to give away even a single point. However, on tiebreak, Aisam made three double faults, which handed victory to his opponents.

The tiebreak 19-17 (36), was termed as the longest ever seen on Pakistan soil. Earlier, the longest tie-break was in Aqeel’s match against a Korean player in Lahore back in 2003 which had ended with same score of 19-17(36).

Uzbekistan’s Sanjar Fayziev competes.—White Star
Uzbekistan’s Sanjar Fayziev competes.—White Star

After nerve-wrecking tie bre­ak, in the second set, Istomin was leading two games to one, when Aisam suffered cramps in his right hand. He was forced to take a break and for that , the chair referee imposed a penalty of two points on Aisam.

But the Pakistani ace player was unable to continue, giving up the set 4-1, and the game. This match lasted nearly one hour and 37 minutes.

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2018