Tennis: Kafelnikov beats history man

Australian Open: Russian's rout of Haas ensures showdown with Enqvist avoids `seedless final' tag
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The Independent Online
YEVGENY KAFELNIKOV overwhelmed Tommy Haas 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 yesterday to spare the 1999 Australian Open a dubious place in the sport's history. The 10th-seeded Russian brushed aside the 20-year-old German in a 113- minute semi-final to rule out the prospect of the first unseeded men's singles final in the Open era.

There were clear indications of Haas's fate as early as his first service game when Kafelnikov broke to go 2-0 up. The 1996 French Open champion went on to serve 16 aces and significantly made only 27 unforced errors to his opponent's 41. The 24-year-old Kafelnikov said: "I knew I had to stay tough and focused and I did that wonderfully."

Kafelnikov, however, quickly claimed that the in-form Thomas Enqvist would start the final as favourite, the Swede having won two Open warm- up tournaments and having beaten two seeds - including the twice US Open winner Pat Rafter - in the early rounds here.

"Hopefully I will get my chances but I feel like I'm definitely the underdog," said Kafelnikov, who missed the last two Australian Opens through injury. In 1997, he was ruled out when he broke a finger while battering a punchbag in the gym and last year injured his knee in a skiing accident.

There was no room for doubt about Kafelnikov's performance yesterday. He started strongly against a tentative Haas and gained important early service breaks in the first two sets. It was the first time Haas had made it past the third round in a Grand Slam tournament and he began nervously. The match was almost over by the time he began to find his range with damaging groundstrokes.

Kafelnikov completely outplayed Haas, breaking the baseliner's serve in the 11th game of the final set and then calmly serving out the match to love. He varied his tactics constantly, slamming 16 aces and also drawing Haas into long rallies. Kafelnikov said he would need to adopt similar tactics against Enqvist, who beat the unsung Nicolas Lapentti of Ecuador 6-3, 7-5, 6-1 in the first semi-final.

"The one thing I do have to do to stay in the match with Thomas is to hold my serve," Kafelnikov said. "I know if I stay in the match with him I will have my chances."

The semi-final was played with Melbourne Park's retractable centre court roof closed after light rain fell, a decision that did not please Kafelnikov. "I was actually disappointed with the decision, because Tommy beat me once indoors," he said.

His win buried the prospect of the first unseeded men's singles final in more than 30 years of Open tennis. Richard Krajicek beat MaliVai Washington in what was originally billed as an unseeded final at Wimbledon in 1996. But an International Tennis Federation spokeswoman said Wimbledon officials decided after the final that Krajicek was a seed, replacing Austria's Thomas Muster who had withdrawn from the tournament.

Other than that, the only unseeded final was at the 1966 US National Championships when Fred Stolle beat his fellow Australian John Newcombe 4-6, 12-10, 6-3, 6-4. Open tennis began in 1968.

Two weeks ago, punters had the unseeded Enqvist at 33-1 to win the championship. After winning an exhibition event two days before the Open his odds improved to 9-1. Now the 24-year-old Swede, who had not made it past the quarter- finals of a Grand Slam event until now is the strong favourite to take the title.

Enqvist has yet to lose a match this year, with titles from Adelaide and Melbourne warm-up events affirming his return from foot surgery last year.

"I'm quite amazed to see how strong he is when he comes back after an injury," said compatriot Jonas Bjorkman, who reached the doubles final with Australian partner Pat Rafter in a five-set semi-final against the second seeds, Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde.

Bjorkman tipped Enqvist to win the title. "Thomas is so strong, and so focused, to take his chance when he really has [it]. And he seems to be more ready than ever to win a Grand Slam," Bjorkman said.

Rafter, who was seeded third but beaten in the third round by Enqvist, was not quite so sure, as he pointed to an in-form Kafelnikov, who is under no pressure. The US Open champion would not, however, begrudge Enqvist the title many thought the Australian himself would take.

"If he wins he's a very deserving winner, no doubt about it," Rafter said.