Kafelnikov unable to unravel the puzzle

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The Independent Online
The biggest impact Yevgeny Kafelnikov has made since his triumph at the French Open last year caused a self-inflicted hand wound, the result of taking a swing at a punchbag while messing around in a Melbourne gym in January.

Absent from the Tour for three months as a consequence, the 23-year-old Russian has since experienced difficulty finding form and match fitness for the clay-court season. After losing to Alberto Berasategui in the third round of the Italian Open yesterday, the fourth-seeded Kafelnikov said he would require "a miracle" to make a successful defence of his title in Paris 11 days hence.

Kafelnikov was being a little hard on himself considering the history of his matches against Berasategui. The Russian has been unable to fathom the Spaniard's contorted style of stroke-making, and yesterday's defeat, 6-3, 6-2, was par for the course. Kafelnikov also failed to take a set in their three previous matches, between 1993 and 1994. "He has a great forehand, and spins the ball and makes me run all over the court," the frustrated Russian said.

Although most players have a bete noire, it worried Kafelnikov that he was no nearer to countering Berasategui yesterday than during his formative years.

Kafelnikov's problem goes deeper. Since his victory against Michael Stich in the final of last year's French Open, he has played only one match in a Grand Slam championship. And that was his defeat by Britain's Tim Henman in the first round at Wimbledon.

A groin injury caused him to miss the US Open in August and the punchball episode cost him participation in the Australian Open.

Kafelnikov's defeat yesterday meant that none of the top five seeds had advanced to the quarter-finals. Indeed, the Russian was the only one to have made it to the third round.

Jim Courier surveyed the carnage of the seeds he had helped perpetrate by eliminating Pete Sampras, the world No 1 in the opening round, and said he would not be surprised if similar events occurred at the French Open. Open is the operative word. As the unseeded Courier said, "There is nobody dominating the season.''

The Floridan speaks from experience, having won both the Italian and French titles twice between 1991 and 1993. "That time has passed - not to say that I will never win again at that level," Courier said. "I will not be No 1 again, but if I keep playing like I'm playing now, I can still be competitive.''

It will be interesting to see how Courier copes today against Marcelo Rios, the Chilean No 7 seed who won the Monte Carlo Open last month. Rios is one of only three seeds remaining in the last eight, the others being Alex Corretja and Goran Ivanisevic.

Ivanisevic, No 6, defeated his old adversary, Boris Becker, the 12th seed, 7-6, 6-3. Ivanisevic, like Kafelnikov, has had his injury problems. This is the Croat's comeback tournament after trapping a hand in the door of his apartment in Split last month, breaking his right middle finger in three places.

The last of the Italians lost yesterday. Davide Scala, a qualifier, who made the most of Tim Henman's collapse after leading, 6-1, 1-0, in the second round, competed well against Scott Draper, who won, 7-5, 6-2. The 22-year-old from Brisbane now plays Ivanisevic for a place in the semi- finals.