Kafelnikov's labours pay off

Click to follow
The Russians have launched a number of interesting missiles in their time, and yesterday it was the turn of Yevgeny Kafelnikov's racket, which was dispatched high into the Centre Court crowd at Stade Roland Garros in celebration of the nation's first Grand Slam championship.

Kafelnikov defeated Germany's Michael Stich in the French Open final, 7-6, 7-5, 7-6 and, while his initial major triumph may have taken some people by surprise, Pete Sampras will not be among them.

The Wimbledon champion, who lost to Kafelnikov in the semi-finals, had predicted great things for the 22-year-old from the Black Sea resort of Sochi almost two and a half years ago, when pushed to within two points of defeat in the second round of the Australian Open. Since then, Kafelnikov has worked hard - some would argue that he plays too often - to synchronise his temperament with his talent, and everything began to gell during the past two weeks.

His victory yesterday complemented success in the doubles on Saturday in partnership with the Czech, Daniel Vacek. Kafelnikov is the first to win both French titles since Ken Rosewall in 1968, and he acknowledged that his sharpness in the singles owed much to his willingness to compete regularly in both events.

The benefits of those labours were there for all to admire yesterday, when he joined Stich in producing a veritable exhibition of clay-court skills; at least during the opening two sets, before fatigue began to take a toll.

While the nickname "Kalashnikov" came conveniently, it neatly summarises the impact of the Russian's all-round game. Yesterday he served solidly, and his deep returns countered Stich's powerful deliveries so effectively that a high percentage of the points were decided by fascinating duels of groundstroke skills, finesse, and intelligent movement.

The longer the match progressed along its two and a half hour course, the more Stich was driven back beyond the baseline by the Russian's impressive double-handed backhand.

Both men resisted a breach when put under pressure in the opening set, Stich fending off six break points and Kafelnikov four before the Russian took his chances in the tie-break, which he won, 7-4, after 56 minutes.

Kafelnikov then overhit one of his booming backhands to lose serve in the opening game of the second set and netted a backhand volley to give Stich the chance to take a 5-2 lead. "That was the critical point of the match," the Russian said afterwards. "If I had lost that second set, maybe things might have turned all the way around for me.''

Instead, Kafelnikov managed to break Stich twice when the German served to level the match, most critically at 5-4, when Stich hit a forehand long on set point. Suddenly looking weary, Stich missed a sideline with an angled forehand volley at the conclusion of a brief rally when attempting to stave off a second set point at 5-6.

Stich, who astounded the crowds here with his fourth-round victory against Thomas Muster, the defending champion, was not quite finished. He broke in the third came of the third set and extended his lead to 4-2 before Kafelnikov retaliated, levelling to 4-4.

The German then became over-generous, double-faulting four times in the 10th game and in the process offering his opponent two match points. Kafelnikov netted a service return on the first and Stich passed him with a forehand to snatch away the second.

"When I missed those two match points , I felt I would never make it," Kafelnikov recounted. "I felt really, really tired.''

The Russian saved a break point in the next game, and Stich then ensured that they would battle through a second tie-break. Kafelnikov created two more match points in the shoot-out. Stich saved one with a backhand drive, but could do nothing when Kafelnikov found a sideline with his forehand at 7-3.

"It is just a dream," he said, after thanking everyone, including the spectators. "I never felt that I could do it, winning a Grand Slam at the age of 22, especially after being in quarter-finals five times in the last two years.''

His mind was already on the airport, and flight arrangements which would take him home to celebrate with his family. "I am going to have a couple of days with them before I go to Halle [in Germany], preparing for Wimbledon.''

He was reminded by an interviewer that he has frequently been criticised in his home country for failing to live up to expectations, particularly in Davis Cup finals. "Maybe I will be a hero tomorrow," he said. "I don't know. I know I will be the same person.''

Perhaps, although he is already something of a wealthy rarity in his home town, and will now add pounds 450,000 to his career prize-money of pounds 2.4m.