Safin wins it for the Russians

Feb 10, 2002, Olympic Stadium, Moscow, RUS, by Jo Sirman

Marat Safin ended Swiss hopes in Moscow with a straight sets victory over Michel Kratochvil 61 76(6) 64, winning the fifth point for his country and putting Russia into the next round of the 2002 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. It was the Australian Open runner-up's first Davis Cup singles victory in five matches and his third win in a decisive fifth rubber.

The young Russian reflected on a weekend of fluctuating fortunes in which his country eventually got the right result. "It's a team competition. Sometimes you play better, sometimes you play worse in Davis Cup... we were very nervous because it was a very important match... I didn't want to lose at home. I tried my best and in the end I was lucky."

The hosts' happiness was tinged with relief following Kafelnikov's straight sets loss to Roger Federer in the fourth rubber. The Russian No. 1 was unable to explain his curious slump in the second and third sets. "It's just unlucky circumstances. There was just a whole lot of circumstances that prevented me from playing well today."

Russia will play Sweden in the quarterfinals, following their 3-2 defeat of Great Britain in Birmingham, and has the luxury of another home tie. Captain Shamil Tarpischev confirmed that this would also be played in Moscow.

Safin was dominant from the outset of the decisive rubber but Kratochvil, the older of the pair by nine months, never stopped fighting. The 22-year-old from Bern was one of last year's most improved players, and it was not hard to see why on Sunday in the Olympic Stadium. Kratochvil is reminiscent of Hewitt in style and pace, and with his frequent shouts of 'come on!' at crucial moments.

The Swiss bench had little time to be euphoric following Federer's stunning win before Kratochvil had lost the first set and, it seemed, would slide to an early defeat. The opener lasted just 22 minutes and the Swiss was unable to get on the scoreboard until the sixth game, losing 61.

Two forehand errors from Safin gave Kratochvil the first break in the second set, and he took a 4-1 lead to the sound of Swiss cheers and cowbells. At that point Kratochvil had another point to break, but a Becker-style lunge on a volley from Safin saved the point and the Russian held serve. Afterwards Kratochvil acknowledged that this was "a key moment" in the match. Instead of being two breaks up, he lost his own serve two game later, missing an easy smash to open the door to Safin. In an angry tenth game, where there were several disputed line calls, the Swiss player had further opportunities but it came down to a tense tiebreak.

With Kafelnikov on his feet urging Safin on, the Russian No. 2 got to set point at 6-5, but double faulted to give Kratochvil a glimmer of hope. The moment quickly passed however as Safin won the next two points and the set, Kratochvil throwing his racket down in anger.

Swiss resolve was not broken in the third set, and Kratochvil broke Safin in the third game, but victory for the hosts was within reach. The Russian clinched the vital break back with a blistering forehand return before breaking again two games later to seal the match and the tie 61 76(6) 64. The stadium erupted in cheers of delight tinged with relief, after three days of at times erratic but ultimately better tennis from their team. It had been close and they knew it.

It was a hard loss for Kratochvil to take in his most important match to date in Davis Cup. "I played a good match against Kafelnikov, I did my part for the team. Roger made two points and I absolutely wanted this one, but I wasn't hitting the ball as clean and hard as on Friday." Having improved so much recently, he is hopeful that Switzerland will come through in years to come. "We are a good team and a very young team, so I think the future looks bright."

Federer, who chose to play in Moscow in a red shirt to represent Swiss colours, agreed with his team mate that their country's time will come. "For myself and my singles matches there was some great tennis from me this weekend. I couldn't have expected much more. I would have loved to win the doubles but they played very well... in the end it was just tough that we lost the tie."

Switzerland must now play in the Davis Cup World Group Qualifying Round in September, which will determine if the nation continues to play in the World Group next year. The team will find out its opponent at the Draw, which takes place on 10 April.

As the Russians celebrated, Kafelnikov already had one eye on the next round. "Now I can't wait until we play 6-8 April".