Tennis: Kafelnikov is one step away from summit

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The Independent Online
UNLESS HE loses to Thomas Johansson, a Swedish opponent who recently recovered from a knee injury, Yevgeny Kafelnikov will become the world No 1 tonight - only the 15th in the 26 years of the ATP rankings, the first from Russia, and the first to be crowned in London (although, as he said, "it wouldn't matter even if it was Ho Chi Minh City").

The 25-year-old from the Black Sea resort of Sochi needs to advance to tomorrow's semi-finals of the Guardian Direct Cup to overtake Pete Sampras, the Wimbledon champion. Sampras has reigned at the top for a total of 260 weeks, interrupted occasionally by Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Thomas Muster, and Marcelo Rios. Only Ivan Lendl (270 weeks) and Jimmy Connors (268 weeks) have superior records.

Kafelnikov, the Australian Open champion, has won $12.86m (pounds 7.85m) in prize-money since turning professional in 1992 and, among other expensive status symbols, he has a collection of top-of-the-range sports cars.

In contrast to Tim Henman, the British No 1, Kafelnikov does not have a tennis clothing contract or a portfolio of advertising deals, because he refuses to devote time to photo-shoots. Nor is he prepared to involve himself in time-consuming tennis politics by joining the ATP Tour's player council.

"If you want to stay competitive you've got to give yourself 100 per cent to the job, not to doing stuff outside the court," said Kafelnikov, who had predicted a repeat of last week's Rotterdam final against Henman and was surprised to see him lose in the first round against the Slovak Jan Kroslak.

"If Tim is enjoying doing those things, then it's OK," Kafelnikov added. "But perhaps Tim could cut his appearance schedule to concentrate and focus on any aspect of his game that is going to improve his performance. I'm sure he's spending enough time on the court, but if he was to spend a little more I'm sure it would help."

According to Kafelnikov, that may also apply to Henman's committee role with the ATP Tour. "I'm sure it's hurting him," the Russian said. "In anything you're involved besides your main job, it's really hurting. I just think when you compete in a tournament you just have to stay focused on the job."

Was he advising Henman to spend more time on court in tournaments, or on the practice courts? "Both is going to help. He does not play enough clay court tournaments. He obviously plays big ones, like Hamburg and Rome and then the French Open. If you really want to improve your game in general you've got to have a lot of matches on different surfaces. That's how I felt. Even if I was losing three or four times in a row in the first round in the clay court season I still would go back, because that is going to help me play well in the French Open."

Kafelnikov moved tantalisingly close to the summit of the game yesterday with a 6-3, 6-2 win against Byron Black, of Zimbabwe. "I'm probably playing as well as I've ever played," Kafelnikov said. "That's a wonderful feeling. You step on the court and feel like you can win every match."

Black agreed Kafelnikov's play is becoming irrestistible. "He's at the top of his game, playing with a lot of confidence. I can't see anybody stopping him from becoming No 1, although he will have to play well against Thomas [Johansson."

Kafelnikov was having a lean time a year ago, but Black did not see any drastic change in the Russian's game. "He's just well oiled at the moment. He's seeing the ball well. One thing I noticed was that he's trying to chip the backhand a little bit more. Larry Stefanki [Kafelnikov's coach] likes players to chip the backhand a little bit, just to mix things up and stay in the point."

Goran Ivanisevic has been appointed as the ATP Tour's chairman of players' charities for 1999. "I'm the No 1 guy for paying fines, so they've picked the right guy," Ivanisevic joked, announcing that he would also donate $50 for every ace he hits. The fines go to charity, and Ivanisevic contributed $58,000 last year. "I've paid more in fines in my career than some of the guys make in prize money all their career."

BATTERSEA DETAILS

YESTERDAY'S RESULTS

Men's singles, second round: T Johansson (Swe) bt D Sanguinetti (It) 6-0 6-7 6-2; Y Kafelnikov (Rus) bt B Black (Zim) 6-3 6-2; K Kucera (Svk) bt G Raoux (Fr) 6-2 6-0.

Doubles, second round: Y Kafelnikov (Rus) & D Vacek (Cze) bt G Ivanisevic (Croa) & N Kiefer (Ger) 6-2 6-1; B Black (Zim) & W Ferreira (SA) bt T Carbonell (Sp) & C Haggard (SA) 6-4 6-2.

TODAY'S ORDER OF PLAY

Centre Court: 12:30pm: R Krajicek (Neth) v K Kucera (Slovak). Not before 2:30pm: T Enqvist (Swe) v P Korda (Cz Rep) or G Rusedski (GB); H Arazi (Mor) v D Hrbaty (Slovak) or J Kroslak (Slovak). Not before 7pm: Y Kafelnikov (Rus) v T Johansson (Swe); N Broad (GB) & R Koenig (SA) v T Henman & G Rusedski (GB).

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