Kafelnikov takes rightful place

Simon O'Hagan says the Russian has long deserved a berth in a Grand Slam final
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The Independent Online
It would be a shame if Pete Sampras's physical and emotional impairment during his French Open semi-final against Yevgeny Kafelnikov on Friday were to leave the impression that the 22-year-old Russian's achievement in reaching his first Grand Slam final was in some way devalued. Kafelnikov's is a supreme talent, and when he steps on to the Centre Court at Roland Garros this afternoon to face Michael Stich of Germany, there is no question that this is a player worthy of the occasion.

Anyone who followed Kafelnikov's progress when he went from 314 in the world rankings at the end of 1992 to 11 by the end of 1994 could see that the tall, blond youth from the Black Sea was destined for great things. Indeed, he might by now have been expected to make even more of himself than he has, after reaching a career-best ranking of No4 in April last year (he is ranked No7 at the moment). But while there is almost nothing Kafelnikov lacks either as a technician or as a stylist, he has always suffered mood swings, and behind them has lain a tendency to waver in his self-belief.

In tennis terms, Kafelnikov's background is relatively obscure - he is the first player from the old Soviet Union to reach a Grand Slam final since Alex Metreveli, a Georgian, did so at Wimbledon in 1973. And while Kafelnikov is intensely proud of his roots, they have not made life any easier for him on the international circuit, where in his struggle to gain a command of English he has come across as a much more pained character than is really the case.

But given the chance, Kafelnikov will usually find a reason not to do well. He admits that he felt defeated before he even stepped on to the court to face Thomas Muster in last year's French Open semi-final. That was understandable - but only up to a point. Then there is his suspicion of grass, which is perhaps inevitable in a clay-courter but is clearly ill-founded in Kafelnikov's case. As well as possessing a piercing serve and the full range of groundstrokes, he is a wonderfully crisp and elegant volleyer who got as far as the quarter-finals at Wimbledon last year before going out in a tight three-setter against the eventual runner-up, Goran Ivanisevic.

But in Paris during the past fortnight, Kafelnikov has struck an unusually positive note, having gone into the tournament on the back of much better form than had been the case in 1995. "Finally, I find the right tactic for the clay court," he was saying as early as the third round after three straight-sets wins against potentially awkward Spaniards. When he beat another, Francisco Clavet, to reach the quarter-finals, he said: "I've been playing more than unbelievable here." When Kafelnikov is prepared to speak in those terms, it is clear that he is in business.

Whether he can go all the way today against a resurgent Stich is another matter. A final nobody could have expected, it promises to be a fasciniating contest between two players who think before they hit and can mix aggressive serve-and-volley tactics with the baseline game.

Since reaching the semis of the French in 1991 - immediately prior to winning his only Grand Slam title, at Wimbledon - Stich's record at Roland Garros has been worse than indifferent. He lost in the third round in 1992, the fourth in 1993, the second in 1994 and the third in 1995.

When he came into this year's tournament after eight months in which he suffered two bad injuries to his left ankle and played only one clay- court event he expected nothing. It was just a better way of spending a few days than practising at home.

At 27, Stich is a player of huge experience and considerable class who deserves his shot at another slice of glory. Some of his tennis in Paris, notably in his semi-final against Marc Rosset, has been been an almost perfect synthesis of mind and body, and Kafelnikov knows will need to be at his sharpest if he is to out-smart his opponent. Whatever happens, a new name will be added to the roll of French Open champions. The heart says Kafelnikov, the head says Stich.