Kafelnikov succumbs to pressure and the man for all surfaces

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The Independent Online

What was supposed to be another historic day for Russian tennis had the worst possible start yesterday when the seventh seed, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, was dumped out by the Argentinian Guillermo Canas, 3-6, 6-1, 6-3, 7-6. For the first time at Wimbledon, four Russians had reached the third round; never before had more than one progressed as far as the fourth, but Kafelnikov's anticipated entry into the last 16 alongside Marat Safin was halted by the man who has become a bête noir of Britain's Tim Henman and is rapidly establishing a reputation as a man for all surfaces.

As well as winning seven of his last eight matches on grass, Canas defeated Henman at the 1999 US Open, in straight sets, and again at this year's French Open, going on to lead Hewitt by two sets to love in the quarters. That was a rare five-set defeat. On all other occasions this year, including previous Wimbledon rounds against his compatriot Gaston Gaudio and Denmark's Kenneth Carlsen, he has prevailed when taken to the limit, which was where yesterday's encounter seemed to be heading. Kafelnikov, serving to draw level at two sets each, led 30-15 at one stage before a calamitous run of three successive double faults put him in trouble.

As well as his Teddy Sheringham looks, Kafelnikov often seems to have the Tottenham man's languid style, which is less appropriate in front of a tennis net than the football equivalent. "I know he has talent," Canas said, "but sometimes his mentality is not so strong."

"I don't know how many times I'll get such a good opportunity and not be able to take it," the Russian admitted. "It's a combination of knowing you have the opportunity and the pressure I put on myself knowing I'm favourite to go through." For a man who has won Grand Slam events in Australia and France, plus the Olympic title, among more than 500 victories, that pressure should hardly have been insuperable.

"You can't perform to 100 per cent when you're under pressure," he insisted. "The draw on my side was wide open and I was favourite to go through to the quarter-final. That was my minimum goal." Now that opportunity falls to the engaging Canas, the first Argentinian to make the last 16 for 22 years.

On a blustery, under-populated Court Two – famed as a graveyard, although Kafelnikov declined to offer that excuse – neither man was entirely comfortable on serve, especially in an unpredictable period of play on either side of a 40-minute rain-break. Two of the three service breaks went to Kafelnikov and with them the first set. In the second, Canas pulled his service game together and cantered through 6-1. He was broken early in each of the next two sets, yet fought back each time to take advantage of the Russian's errors.

Those ghastly double faults then led Kafelnikov into a fourth set tie-break, during which another stoppage for rain was his best hope. Umbrellas were up and drizzle steady, but the supervisor stayed his arm, allowing Canas to raise his in triumph.

So it was left to Mikhail Youzhny and Andrei Stoliarov to try and make up for their countryman's failure, against seeded opponents in Fabrice Santoro and Nicolas Kiefer. The Russian revolution dates back to the mid-80s, when the government recognised the potential of a sport about to regain Olympic status. Its fundamentally bourgeois nature was suddenly forgotten, and as racket strings were tightened, purse strings and restrictions on travel were loosened. After agitation by Natasha Zvereva and Andrei Chesnokov, among others, players even began to take a greater proportion of prize money than their federation, to a point at which Kafelnikov's career earnings are approaching £15m.

But for the break up of the Soviet empire, players like Max Mirnyi, Vladimir Voltchkov, Sargis Sargsian and Andrei Medvedev might all have been playing under the same flag; it would be an even more formidable Davis Cup team than the one that reached the finals of 1994 and '95.

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