Tennis: 'Chessy' moves of new Russian

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NOT long ago, the tennis tour was enlightened by the appearance of Andrei Chesnokov, whose deadpan interviews and enigmatic tennis skills entranced press and spectators alike. Chessy, as he was universally known, was a good enough clay courter to be considered a contender for the French Open and he once had the distinction of seeing the Russian flag hoisted high above the Principality of Monaco to honour his win in the Monte Carlo Open, a piece of capitalist history.

But no one, least of all Chesnokov himself, could be quite sure which of many characters would emerge from the depths of his psyche. His favourite answer to press questions was "yes, but no". His tennis was similarly contradictory; one moment sublime, the next casual to the point of criminality.

Though Yevgeny Kafelnikov became the first Russian to win a grand slam title, at the French Open in 1996, there is still a streak of Chessy in him which stretches beyond the bass voice and the thoughtful responses to questions. He is one of the hardest workers on the circuit - never one of Chessy's faults - yet yesterday admitted that once or twice over a difficult year past, he has seriously considered retirement. Asked what motivated him to play almost to the point of mental exhaustion, he rummaged for an answer without success. "I wish I would know, but I don't." Only injuries, ranging from the bizarre to the idiotic, impede his relentless progress across the globe. A broken finger was sustained hitting a punchbag, a twisted ankle on the ski slopes of the Alps.

The organisers of the inaugural Guardian Direct Cup should raise the Russian flag over Battersea Park. As the seeds have tumbled daily and the British heroes have failed to survive to the weekend, the No 3 seed has ploughed a lonely furrow through the bottom half of the draw.

A 7-5 6-4 defeat of Wayne Ferreira yesterday afternoon moved the Russian into his second final of the month and, with no ranking points to defend over the next few months, pushed him closer to the shirttails of such players as Petr Korda and Pat Rafter, both surprising losers here, who will press Pete Sampras hard for the No 1 spot through the summer. "It is not in my mind at the moment," Kafelnikov said. "I will not be looking at the rankings on Monday." You bet he will. Ranking points are the daily bread of tournament professionals.

At times, sitting beneath 11,000 square metres of canvas in Battersea, spectators have felt like extras in an episode of The Onedin Line. But, apart from scheduling Tim Henman's first-round match against Richard Krajicek way beyond the office hours of London Transport, the event has progressedsmoothly before good-sized crowds happy to see some of the world's best - albeit briefly - on Greenset carpet instead of green grass.

Shorn of national interest after Henman's defeat by Kafelnikov and the early exit of Greg Rusedski, the fare looked a little thin for the pounds 26- pounds 30 price of entry yesterday. Thought should be given to having just one session, featuring both semi-finals, rather than splitting the matches between the afternoon and evening. It did not help the entertainment quota that neither Ferreira nor Kafelnikov were at their best. The Russian won because he made fewer mistakes and because, on a critical breakpoint in the 11th game of the first set, he enjoyed the benefit of an outrageous netcord. A game later he wrapped up the first set.

The Russian broke early in the second set to lead 3-1, but was broken back as Ferreira began to find some of the searing returns which had accounted for Rafter the previous evening. But another casual service game gifted Kafelnikov the decisive break and the match after a patch 77 minutes. Having suffered from an ankle injury for most of the past year, Ferreira was just happy to compete without pain. Kafelnikov has set his sights on his first tournament victory of the year beneath the big top today against Cedric Pioline, the 1997 Wimbledon finalist, who beat the unheralded Dutchman, Jan Siemerink, 6-3 7-6 in the second semi-final.