Yeltsin and painful defeat drive Safin to victory

Nov 29, 2002,
Palais Omnisports Paris Bercy, Paris, FRA,

With former Russian president Boris Yeltsin cheering from the front row, it was Marat Safin's memories of Moscow that inspired him to victory in the opening singles of the Davis Cup final against France.

Safin, like his team mate Yevgeny Kafelnikov, is determined to bring the Davis Cup back to the Russian capital for the first time and a painful lesson learned in Moscow just last month may have laid the foundation for such an historic win.

Safin beat Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-4 to avenge a loss to the 20-year-old in the Kremlin Cup.
Mathieu had beaten Safin 7-6 6-4 in the semi-finals on his way to his first ATP title, playing what the Muscovite called "risky" tennis.

The Russian was convinced Mathieu did not have the weapons or experience to play this extravagant game over five sets in the cauldron atmosphere of a Davis Cup final, and so it proved.

Mathieu blazed away for two sets, won one of them, but was then ground down by the greater consistency and shot-making of his 22-year-old opponent who, having won the U.S. Open two years ago, knows what it takes to play big matches.

Only in the final stages, when he sacrificed his first match point with a double fault, and then let Mathieu fight back from 5-2 down, did Safin's concentration slip.


But he held his nerve to win on his second match point, when yet another big serve at a key moment deceived Mathieu.

"I lost a little bit of concentration in the second set - I slowed down and I couldn't get my game back until the third," the world number three said.

"But in the third and fourth sets I controlled the match. I was very satisfied with my game at the end of a long season.
"He kind of surprised me in Moscow with how he played. But in this second match I knew what I had to do and that was not let him dominate the match.

"I was nervous of course and it is difficult to play your best tennis in such a match. I wanted to finish it really quickly and I served too fast (on the first match point)."

Yeltsin, a keen tennis player, invited the team for a reception before they left for Paris and promised he would be at the Bercy stadium to offer support.
The 71-year-old was seated next to French President Jacques Chirac, 70 on Friday. Yeltsin applauded Safin warmly as his compatriot left the court after a gamble by French captain Guy Forget to give Mathieu his Davis Cup debut had failed.

Forget sealed a stunning victory for France in last year's final in Australia when he brought in Nicolas Escude who beat world number one Lleyton Hewitt and Wayne Arthurs.

Mathieu felt he had performed to the best of his ability and said was not overwhelmed by the feverish atmosphere in the Bercy stadium. But his naivety and lack of match practice after only recently recovering from a stomach injury was exposed repeatedly by Safin, only two years older in age but a decade better off in experience.
"I think today he was the best player in the world," said Mathieu. "When he plays like that its like being on a rollercoaster.

"But I have nothing to regret, it's not finished. It was just the first match."