Russia Bids To End Losing Streak

Apr 04, 2002, Sports Palace "Luzhniki", Moscow, RUS, by Nick Imison

If Russia is to go on and win its first Davis Cup title, it will first have to end another losing streak this weekend when it takes on Sweden in the quarterfinals of the 2002 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas in Moscow.

The Russians have lost all four previous encounters against Sweden, most recently in last year's quarterfinals, where they were outplayed 4-1 in Malmo. With Marat Safin out through injury, Yevgeny Kafelnikov was unable to shoulder the burden singlehanded, and the Swedes wrapped up victory with a day to spare.

If anything it is the Swedes who are understrength on this occasion. Their most successful clay court player Magnus Norman has only recently returned to the tour after undergoing surgery on his left hip, and is not yet ready for a test such as this. And it is on clay that this three-day tie will be played, a surface on which Kafelnikov has won Roland Garros and Safin has won two other titles.

In contrast the Swedish No. 1 Thomas Johansson has never progressed beyond the second round at Roland Garros, but the 27-year-old from Linkoping is currently riding the crest of a wave having stunned the tennis world by capturing the Australian Open in January for his first Grand Slam title. He then came back from injury to defeat Greg Rusedski in the deciding fifth rubber of Sweden's first round Davis Cup victory over Great Britain in Birmingham.

Johansson will be looking to take what he sees as a mental edge into the opening singles rubber against Safin, his Australian Open final victim. "We have played four times, but never on clay so it will be a completely different game with a lot of ralleys. I am sure he still remembers the last match, so hopefully I have a little bit of an advantage."

Safin remains something of an enigma in tennis, combining the sort of brilliance which saw him capture the 2000 US Open title with form that has seen him win only one of his last six Davis Cup singles rubbers. Fortunately for Safin, and for Russia, that one win came in the fifth rubber of its first round meeting with Switzerland, when he overcame Michel Kratochvil in straight sets to seal a place in the quarterfinals.

The Russian No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov boasts a more impressive 29-13 career singles record in Davis Cup, and he will be looking to improve those statistics against Thomas Enqvist in the day's second singles rubber. Like Johansson, most of Enqvist's successes have come on faster surfaces, but he was the hero of Sweden's first round victory, recording straight sets victories over Rusedski and Tim Henman.

Carl-Axel Hageskog, Sweden's long-time captain, admitted that the surface did favour the home team. "This is certainly not our best surface. However the court is faster indoors and suits anyone with a good serve and good groundstrokes. My team have all played a lot on clay since a young age and I don't think it will be a problem for them."

So the stage is set for a fascinating quarterfinal between a team with a history of long term success in Davis Cup and a team desperate to become part of that history.

As Kafelnikov himself said: "I have achieved most of the goals in tennis, Grand Slam titles, an Olympic gold medal, becoming World No. 1. The one thing left to give me full satisfaction is to win the Davis Cup."

Saturday's doubles sees the experienced Davis Cup pairing of Kafelnikov and Safin drawn to face Jonas Bjorkman and Johansson, who made a losing debut against Great Britain. In Sunday's reverse singles, Kafelnikov is first up against Johansson, followed by Safin versus Enqvist.

Both captains are able to make late substitutions on either day, taking into account the results to date and the physical condition of the players. Hageskog used that tactic most effectively in Sweden's victory over Great Britain, but Kafelnikov and Safin are long used to playing on all three days. Whether they need to remains to be seen.