It's All Down to Us, Say the Russians

Nov 26, 2002,
by Jo Sirman

It doesn�t matter who they will play, or what surface they will play on, what matters is how the Russians perform in the Davis Cup Final, says Marat Safin.

Neither does it matter how victory against France is achieved. Safin says they will take a win however it comes - with any kind of scoreline, however badly they play.

"Just to win is most important.�

The countdown has begun in earnest to perhaps the most crucial week in Russian tennis since Safin overwhelmed Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open final to win his first Grand Slam title and Russia�s third, Yevgeny Kafelnikov accounting for the other two. While the nation no longer lacks for titles at the highest level of the game, a Davis Cup title so far remains beyond its reach, despite consecutive visits to the final in 1994 and 1995. It is believed that former Russian President Boris Yeltsin will be at the Palais Omnisports to lend his support.

Having completed a week of practise in Monte Carlo that Kafelnikov says was �productive�, the Russian team has now moved base to Paris and are staying in the same hotel as their French rivals. It�s easy to be relaxed together now, says Safin, ahead of play starting on Friday. Things could get a little harder then.

Russia�s Captain Shamil Tarpischev also firmly believes that his team�s destiny lies in their own hands and not those of the defending champion: �Everything depends on how the Russian players play.�

Denis Golovanov, who is not amongst the Russians' four nominated players, trained with the squad last week in Monte Carlo and is continuing to do so in Paris. Mikhail Youzhny � who has been nominated � has now joined up with the team having missed last week's camp.

While others speculate about which of the nominated French team � Arnaud Clement, Sebastien Grosjean, Nicolas Escude or Fabrice Santoro � will be put forward for the singles matches, or even if Guy Forget will replace one of his nominated players with Paul-Henri Mathieu before the draw on Thursday, Safin has no strong feelings about who he would prefer to see on the other side of the net come Friday.

�They know how to play big matches,� was his succinct assessment.

�I�m doing everything to play my best tennis over the next three days,� continued the 22-year-old Russian.

Losing all three of his matches at the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai does not appear to have dented Safin�s confidence now he is back at Bercy, the scene of his recent title success. In his third visit to the final of the Bercy event, he blew away world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, reclaiming the title he first won two years ago. Paris has been good to Safin and he feels comfortable here, even if the Davis Cup Final will be contested on clay rather than carpet.

Because of Safin�s recent success, Kafelnikov would rather his younger teammate was drawn to play the first singles rubber, suggesting that he himself lacks confidence at this stage and that Safin stands a better chance of scoring the first point than himself.

Gamesmanship, perhaps? The enigmatic 28-year-old has had a disappointing season, finishing the year ranked 27, but has still collected two titles. He also won his first Grand Slam title on the clay of Roland Garros in 1996, and has stressed how much the Davis Cup means to him.

He has said several times that he will retire after the final if Russia win, and whatever happens he will undergo an operation on a varicose vein after the weekend.

There can be no doubt that Kafelnikov will play a crucial role in Russia�s fortunes, for better or worse, in the coming week.