Russians in a new uprising

Simon O'Hagan looks at the prospects for this week's Davis Cup final in Moscow
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The Independent Online
THE Russian team who will contest the Davis Cup final against the United States in Moscow at the end of this week are probably relieved that illness will almost certainly prevent Boris Yeltsin from attending.

President Yeltsin is a big tennis fan - he particularly enjoys playing one of his bodyguards - and it was a proud moment this time last year when Russia, having got to the Davis Cup final for the first time, met Sweden in Moscow. He made his entrance to the Olympic Arena during the fifth set of the opening match between Alexander Volkov and Stefan Edberg.

The effect was disastrous. Volkov went on to lose it 8-6 and the next two matches also ended in five-set defeat for the Russians - an agonising way for their dream of winning the trophy to die.

Now the Russians have another crack in a final which, extraordinarily, pits them against the Americans for the first time in 83 years of Davis Cup competition. In terms of quality, the presence of four men ranked in the world's top 10 - Pete Sampras (1) Andre Agassi (2), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (6) and Jim Courier (7) - make it, on paper, the best final since 1988, when West Germany beat Sweden. Only the 1984 final, in which five top 10 players featured in the match between the United States and Sweden, can better it.

The political changes of the post-Soviet era will do little to lessen the ancient rivalry between these two nations, and the desire on the part of the Russians to put one over the Americans, make up for last year and get their hands on the biggest prize in men's team tennis, will give the competition a unique intensity. "To win would be our greatest achievement," Kafelnikov says.

Theoretically, the Americans are much the stronger. As well as having the world's top two players and Courier, their fourth man, Todd Martin, comes in at No 18. Take away Kafelnikov, the brilliant 21-year-old from the Black Sea, and the Russians look modest. Their other players, Volkov, Andrei Chesnokov and Andrei Olhovskiy, are ranked Nos 47, 91 and 117 respectively.

Even the captains look no match for each other - for the Russians, the rotund, ageing Anatoly Lepeshin, who is also coach to Kafelnikov; for the Americans, the smooth and youthful Tom Gullikson, brother of Sampras's coach, Tim. Then there is the countries' respective records in Davis Cup finals: 30 wins in 57 appearances by the United States; no wins from one appearance by the Russians.

But the beauty of the Davis Cup is the way it so frequently turns rankings on its head. What the Russians did in the semi- final, when they overcame Germany in Moscow, proves that. With the tie at 2-2, Chesnokov met Michael Stich in the deciding match. It should have been no contest - Stich, at No 11, was the higher ranked - but roared on by a crowd of 10,000, Chesnokov rallied from 2-1 down to force a fifth set. What followed was the stuff of Davis Cup legend as Chesnokov saved nine match points on Stich's serve before winning the set 14-12.

With that kind of inspiration, anything is possible, while the Americans will be weakened if Agassi, who has not played since pulling out of a tournament three weeks ago with a chest muscle problem, is not fully fit.

Neither are the Russians above a bit of gamesmanship. For the semi-final they wanted to slow down their indoor clay court as much as possible in order to reduce the power of the Germans, so they gave it a good watering overnight. Rather too good a watering. When play was due to begin, the court was quite unfit. The International Tennis Federation gave the Russians a firm rebuke.

What kind of future tennis has in Russia depends on the outcome of the final. Limited numbers of courts and expensive equipment underline the sport's reputation as a bourgeois pursuit. But if their men can triumph this week, all that could change. President Yeltsin will not be the only Russian watching his television to see what happens.