Tennis: Germany stitched up

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA recorded an extraordinary Davis Cup semi-final victory over Germany yesterday, yet though they succeeded in qualifying for their first Cup final, the attention in Hamburg was all on a member of the losing team, Michael Stich. Stich had been forced into the limelight, not due the standard of his tennis, but because of a death threat telephone call that he had received on Thursday night.

Stich had lost his singles rubber in four sets on Friday to Alexander Volkov and his strangely poor performance had been explained afterwards when he talked about the death threat and how he had found it impossible to concentrate on court. The threat follows a succession of incidents in which players have found their safety at risk, the worst of which was the on-court stabbing of Monica Seles in April last year which occurred on the same court that Stich was due to play yesterday's doubles rubber.

Stich had considered withdrawing from that match as he feared for his safety and was not sure, again, if he would be up to it mentally. For this reason, his arrival on court yesterday was greeted by a euphoric ovation from the German crowd.

There then ensued a breath-taking doubles match, Stich and Karsten Braasch against Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Andrei Olhovskiy with five bodyguards, dressed in green jackets, shirts and ties, standing on one side of the court. A victory for the Germans was imperative as they had lost both the previous days' singles, yet they immediately went two sets down. Then began the come-back, Stich and Braasch taking the match into the fifth set, but losing three match points on 8-7 and then going down in that last set 10-8.

Stich's performance, he revealed afterwards, was perhaps ameliorated by another telephone call the previous night. 'The person who did it rang me up again yesterday,' he said, 'and told me he was a Boris fan and it was all just a joke and he was sorry.'

This, however, did nothing to ease his fury at the way the whole episode had been treated and he suggested that it may influence against playing for Germany in Davis Cup matches again. Stich said he immediately told Christian Thiemann, the DTB (German tennis federation) event manager, of the threat call late on Thursday evening. He said he had wanted professional guards but the DTB had not met his demands.

'I was afraid for myself and my wife,' Stich said. 'The DTB did not give me the feeling that I was secure. They did not take the necessary measures. It will have consequences for my Davis Cup future. When you look what happened to Seles here and how it has affected a lot of her life . . . Thiemann hasn't a clue. He dealt with it as though it was nothing.'

The other semi-final, between the United States and Sweden, promises a dramatic final day's singles in Gothenburg today. Sweden went 2-0 down in Friday's singles matches, but yesterday started to retrieve the situation when Jan Apell and Jonas Bjorkman beat Jared Palmer and Jonathan Stark, the untried American doubles combination, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.

Only three countries have ever come back from a 2-0 deficit in Davis Cup world group ties, but Stefan Edberg will attempt to improve that statistic in today's long-awaited singles tie against Pete Sampras. Edberg is presently out of touch, but were he to win, the Swedish onus would then fall on Magnus Larsson, ranked 34 in the world, who will play Todd Martin.

Apell and Bjorkman, the French Open doubles finalists, were almost always in control of their doubles match. They targeted Stark's serve, breaking him in the first and second sets, and also made use of Palmer's forehand look vulnerable.

(Photograph omitted)