Kafelnikov hits the wall

Masterly Hewitt pushes Henman further behind in the race to reach Cup showpiece in Lisbon
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The Independent Online

Considering that he wasn't even in the country, it was a bad afternoon for Tim Henman at the Masters Series tournament in Stuttgart. The 6-4 6-7 6-3 semi-final win clocked up by Lleyton Hewitt over the Olympic champion, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, pushed the Adelaide teenager even further ahead of Henman in the qualifying race for a berth in the eight-man field for the Masters Cup (the ATP world championships of fond memory) in Lisbon at the end of this month.

Considering that he wasn't even in the country, it was a bad afternoon for Tim Henman at the Masters Series tournament in Stuttgart. The 6-4 6-7 6-3 semi-final win clocked up by Lleyton Hewitt over the Olympic champion, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, pushed the Adelaide teenager even further ahead of Henman in the qualifying race for a berth in the eight-man field for the Masters Cup (the ATP world championships of fond memory) in Lisbon at the end of this month.

Henman, in 10th position, is now more than 100 points adrift of the sixth-placed Hewitt. He probably needs to win the final Masters Series event in Paris, starting a week tomorrow, to confirm a ticket to Lisbon. Or alternatively, to hope that people of dubious travelling intent, like Andre Agassi, or suffering injuries, like Thomas Enqvist, will let him in through the back door.

In winning their two-hour eight-minute contest yesterday Hewitt also managed to deny Kafelnikov the opportunity to confirm his Lisbon spot alongside those who have already qualified - Gustavo Kuerten, Marat Safin, Pete Sampras, Magnus Norman and Agassi. But Kafelnikov will be there. After all, a week without tennis in his life would be unthinkable. Yevgeny has a work-rate in his profession that the old Soviet regime used to call Stakhanovite.

This slim, fair-haired 26-year-old from the Black Sea resort of Sochi is the Iron Man of the ATP Tour. He holds the record of 171 singles and doubles matches in a year and normally clocks up around 150. Yesterday's was his 142nd of the season (88 singles, 54 doubles). Before dashing off to catch a flight to St Petersburg, where he is playing this week, Kafelnikov uttered the unthinkable comment, "I was so tired. I can't go on like this for ever."

Hewitt, too, was exhausted at the end of this duel, fought mostly from the baseline. The 19-year-old was not his usual fire-cracker self, perhaps because the umpire, Steve Ulrich, issued him a warning for audible obscenity near the end of the tightly contested second set. His play lacked the verve which defeated Henman in the third round and the consistency which saw off Greg Rusedski in the quarter-finals, but in the end he still had enough in the tank to get through to his fifth final of the year, having won the other four.

In a bid to introduce a note of enthusiasm to this rather sedate event, the organisers allocated each of the seeded players a fan section made up of local youngsters. The Kafelnikov and Hewitt glee clubs were in full voice yesterday, though you had to feel a bit sorry for the kids who had to keep bellowing the seven syllables needed for the Russian's name. "Let's go, Lleyton," was altogether easier on the vocal chords - and the ears of the other spectators.

The Hewitt supporters had more opportunity to be in good voice as these two baseline experts squared up in the first set. It contained only one break, in the fifth game, when Kafelnikov, who had been hitting a metronomic length, ended a 17-stroke rally by driving a forehand inches out.

Kafelnikov struck back at once as the match began to warm up, carving a 3-0 lead in the second set. But a brace of netted backhands cost him another break of serve and soon the eager Hewitt was level at 4-4.

At 5-4 Kafelnikov missed three set points or, more accurately, Hewitt saved all three of them with big, brave serving. This sufficed to take the set into a tie-break where Kafelnikov overcame a mini-break on the opening point to set himself up two more set points when a backhand struck the tape and died on Hewitt's side of the net. The Russian missed the first one but levelled the match after an hour and a half with a stunning winner, a half-volley played with both players eyeballing each other at the net.

Kafelnikov later admitted that the extra effort involved in closing out that second set was what tired him. "I had control of the set from the beginning but if I had taken my set point chances I wouldn't have wasted so much energy. I have played 10 singles and four doubles matches in the last two weeks. I try to tell myself to play less, but I guess this is the way I like to be."

The third set was cat and mouse, with both men waiting for the right moment to go on the offensive. The opening came late, with Kafelnikov dropping serve on a tired double-fault to go 5-3 down, leaving Hewitt to serve out for his first Masters Series final with his seventh ace at match point. "I am full of confidence at the moment," he said. "I believe I am a match for anyone out there." In today's final he will play South Africa's Wayne Ferreira, a 6-4 6-2 winner over Sebastien Grosjean of France.

It was a great day, too, for Hewitt's girlfriend, the Belgian Kim Clijsters, who reached the final of the Sparkassen Cup in Leipzig with a 6-2 6-3 win over Russia's Anna Kournikova, who is still without a title on the senior Tour.

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