Tennis: Russians on a Davis Cup roll: Stich loses after death threat

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GERMANY, the Davis Cup holders, received two stunning reversals in Hamburg yesterday at the start of their semi-final against Russia, who won the opening two rubbers. This left them just a win away from reaching the final for the first time since joining the 94-year-old competition in 1962 as the then Soviet Union.

On a hard court made to measure for Michael Stich, Alexander Volkov beat the German 7-5, 1-6, 7-6, 6-4, while Yevgeny Kafelnikov ruined Bernd Karbacher's debut at this level by winning the opening singles 7-6, 6-1, 2-6, 6-4.

Stich further stunned his team when he said after his defeat that he may skip today's doubles, which the Germans have to win to keep their hopes alive. 'I can't say why,' Stich said, 'first I have to talk it over with Niki Pilic, our captain.'

Germany, champions three times, last came back to win from a 2-0 deficit in 1960 against Czechoslovakia. In addition, they have not lost at home since the 1985 final, when Sweden triumphed 3-2.

Volkov, a 27-year-old left-hander, broke Stich to love at the start of the fourth set and held on to win by hitting a volley on his third match point. 'I was not concentrating. I wasn't at all on the ball,' Stich said.

This may have had a lot to do with the death threat that a German federation spokesman said the player had received before he took to the court, which was the scene of the Monica Seles stabbing in April 1993 during the German Open.

The Swedes, meanwhile, seeking only their second win over the United States in seven meetings and a place in the final for the first time in five years, relied heavily on Stefan Edberg to give them a win over Todd Martin in their opening singles in Gothenburg.

Martin, though, came through 6-2, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 and has now beaten Edberg - who had predicted that this might be the key rubber of the tie - in four out of their last five meetings. Then, in a battle of attrition between two big servers, Pete Sampras beat Magnus Larsson 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 7-6.