Tennis: Kafelnikov keeps his hold over Pioline

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The Independent Online
ON a day when London appeared to have been taken over by March hares, a Russian tennis player did a lap of honour in a tented arena in Battersea Park holding a crystal owl in one hand and a cheque for $128,000 (pounds 80,000) in the other.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov, one of the sport's finest all-round talents, had become the inaugural winner of the $815,000 Guardian Direct Cup, the first indoor ATP Tour event to take place in the capital for eight years.

In the final Kafelnikov defeated Cedric Pioline, 7-5, 6-4, extending the Frenchman's number of croppers at the last hurdle of tournaments to 11. Pioline can now add Wandsworth to the neighbouring borough of Merton, where he was beaten by Pete Sampras last July.

It was Kafelnikov's first Tour win in Britain and will raise his world ranking three places to No 4 today, when he prepares to compete in Rotterdam. The 23-year-old from the Black Sea resort of Sochi only dropped one set all week, against Tim Henman. Kafelnikov, in common with Henman, had a dip in form before arriving in London, losing early in Dubai and Antwerp, after reaching the final in Marseilles.

Kafelnikov has developed a habit of handicapping himself at the start of a new season. He has missed the last two Australian Opens, in 1997 after breaking a finger belting a punchball in a gym and this year after damaging a knee in a skiing accident. Last week his feet barely strayed from the court and his racket hand conjured points from all angles as he advanced to the finals of both the singles and the doubles (Kafelnikov and Daniel Vacek were beaten by Martin Damm and Jim Grabb, 6-4, 7-5).

As well as grooving his solid serve and impressive groundstrokes, Kafelnikov took the opportunity to sharpen his volleying on the fast carpet. "I like to play serve and volley," he said. "I can return well, I can volley, but not as good as Edberg did, and I can serve average. If I can put all those things together I have a very good chance at Wimbledon.''

The 10th encounter between Kafelnikov and Pioline, unseeded at No 18, produced the same result as all but one of their previous matches. Pioline managed to defeat the Russian on clay at the Monte Carlo Open in 1996.

"Usually when I play Pioline I know that if I stay with him, one point after another, his confidence will suffer,'' Kafelnikov said.

That is a fair assessment of yesterday's contest, in which Pioline broke for 5-3 and was immediately broken in turn when serving for the opening set. The Frenchman, who does have two tournament victories on his CV (Copenhagen and Prague), was under pressure again in the fifth game of the second set, saving three break points. In the next game Kafelnikov recovered from 0-40 and broke for 5-4 before serving out the match to love.

The promoters also had a satisfactory week, yesterday's near capacity 4,800 attendance bringing the total for the event to 35,000.