Kafelnikov looks to Wimbledon

Chris Bowers sees the talented but erratic Russian reach the final in Halle
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The Independent Online
THE mind of a tennis player is often complex, but few are as complex as that of Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

With Pete Sampras playing so poorly of late, the 24-year-old Russian should be high among the favourites for Wimbledon, but even as he appears in his third successive final on the grass of Halle today, there are still question marks about his ability to lift the most prestigious prize in tennis.

The mercurial blond has been very candid about the inconsistent form that has dogged his year. "I'm having problems with my motivation," he said. "The problem is that I have everything now. When I was younger I was coming up but now I have plenty of money and can do what I want. I still like to win, but money isn't a motivation for me any more, and I don't know how I can set my next goal."

Since winning his 15th title in Battersea Park on 1 March, he has lost several close matches he should have won, which has drained his confidence and undermined his will to get back.

Yet this week could prove something of a turning point. There's no doubt he has the three vital ingredients for playing on grass: a good serve, a sharp first volley, and venomous returns often equal to those of Andre Agassi.

After beating Petr Korda in last year's Halle final, he looked a great bet for Wimbledon, an opinion that held firm until he lost to Nicolas Kiefer in the fourth round on a lacklustre display which he seems to produce every few matches.

It almost proved his undoing yesterday, as he scraped out a 7-6 6-7 6-3 victory over Thomas Johansson which should have been in straight sets. Despite an impressive serving display by the 23-year-old Swede, the Russian should still have broken in the second set on one of his six break points.

Johansson also needed an injury time-out for a thigh complaint (during which Kafelnikov occupied his mind by phoning his girlfriend on his mobile), but still he hung on, and Kafelnikov's frustration mounted.

As his serve deserted him and he hit a seventh double fault in three games, he earned a warning for smashing his racket. Minutes later Johansson levelled the match on a 7-4 tiebreak.

But Kafelnikov pulled himself together in the third set, broke Johannson for 5-3 as the Swede's movement became more restricted, and won the match on a highly dodgy line call on his third match point.

Towards the end Kafelnikov's body language was becoming noticeably more positive, and he was certainly talking a good game afterwards: "I feel under pressure with all these young guys coming up, and sometimes the pressure affects my game. But if I win this tournament the confidence will come back, and a lot of people will see Yevgeny Kafelnikov play tennis as he was playing before, I'm sure."

There's no doubt he can win Wimbledon. He says he has to be a little quicker around the court; a more pressing challenge might be to get more slice on his serve, which doesn't make as much use of grass's low bounce as it might.

Like with many players, it probably ultimately depends on his state of mind. He has frequently played down his chances of success and refuses to acknowledge himself as a Wimbledon champion in waiting but he does have one Grand Slam title to his name (the 1996 French Open) and knows he can play on the green stuff.

In today's Halle final he plays Magnus Larsson, a finalist here in 1994, who beat Paul Haarhuis 7-6 6-2 in yesterday's other semi-final.

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