Russians Seal Place in Semifinals

Apr 06, 2002, Sports Palace "Luzhniki", Moscow, RUS, by Nick Imison

If you want to see Yevgeny Kafelnikov in action, you may need to be quick. The Russian No. 1 has promised to be true to his word and retire should his team achieve Davis Cup glory in December. Today Russia took another step towards that goal by winning a five-set doubles thriller against Sweden to achieve an unbeatable 3-0 lead in their Davis Cup by BNP Paribas quarterfinal tie in Moscow.

Russia is now set for its third successive home tie in September's semifinals, should Argentina complete its expected quarterfinal victory over Croatia. And being a superstitious bunch, there's every chance that the team will return to the Luzhniki Sports Palace, which has inspired them to memorable performances over the last two days.

After overwhelming their opponents in Friday's singles rubbers, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin were today forced to dig deep to win their doubles contest against Jonas Bjorkman and Thomas Johansson 3-6 7-6 6-7 7-5 6-3. In Bjorkman they faced a four-time Grand Slam doubles champion, while Johansson possesses a big serve, and touch on the volley that are the envy of more seasoned doubles players.

The opening set gave no indication of the three-and-a-half hour epic that would follow. A single break of Kafelnikov's serve in the fourth game was enough to give the Swedes the set 6-3 in 27 minutes. When Bjorkman and Johansson fought off an early 0-2 deficit down to build up a 4-2 lead in the second, it looked as though the players would be back in the locker room before most of the 10,000 spectators had unfurled their flags.

But no-one had reckoned on the new-found resilience of the Russians, who managed to break the previously impregnable Johansson serve to level the set at 4-4, and the match went into a nerve-tingling tiebreak. Kafelnikov saved a set point at 5-6 with an ace, and two points later Johansson sent a volley wide to see the match tied at one set all.

In the third set it was the Russians' turn to squander an early advantage. They built up at 3-1 lead, but a poor service game by Safin allowed the Swedes to level, and almost inevitably the match progressed towards another tiebreak. This time Bjorkman and Johansson made no mistake, taking the first two points of the breaker, which they went on to win 7-2.

Break points were a rare commodity in the fourth set, with both partnerships enjoying just a single opportunity until Bjorkman came out to serve at 5-6. A netted volley by Johansson presented the Russians with set point, and a netted smash by Bjorkman off a desperate lob by Kafelnikov sent the crowd wild.

Although the Swedes managed to stay with the home team throughout the early stages of the final set, the momentum had finally swung Russia's way. Johansson somehow managed to hold serve from 0-40 to level at 3-3, but two games later Bjorkman dropped his own delivery, leaving Kafelnikov to serve out for victory. The crowd was on its feet, perhaps realising that they could be taking part in an historic campaign.

Afterwards a delighted Kafelnikov said that the Russian team planned to celebrate in style. "There's an old Russian proverb. 'Once you've done your deed, relax and enjoy.' We were really motivated today and gave it one hundred percent. We knew that if we won the doubles, we wouldn't have to worry about the singles tomorrow."

His sentiments were echoed by an exuberant Safin. "The press have often criticised me for partying too much. Well tonight nobody can criticise me for going out. We really wanted to finish today and now can enjoy ourselves."

A disappointed Johansson reflected: "We had our chances, but didn't take them at the right time. We felt we were the better team for four sets, but they stepped it up really well in the fifth. Yevgeny returned well throughout the match and Marat came up with big shots when it mattered."

Just how much partying is done will probably determine which players take to the court for Sunday's reverse singles. Both rubbers will now be the best of three sets.