Russia wins first Davis Cup title

Sunday December 01, 2002

Russia won the Davis Cup for the first time on Sunday after 20-year-old Mikhail Youzhny, a late substitute in the deciding singles, staged an astonishing comeback to beat Paul-Henri Mathieu 3-6 2-6 6-3 7-5 6-4.

In a showdown between two of the most inexperienced players ever to feature in the title match, Youzhny recovered his nerve after two dreadful sets to claw his way back into the contest, dousing Mathieu's fire and the passion of the Parisian crowd.

Youzhny, a ballboy the last time his country appeared in a final in 1995, was brought in by Russian coach Shamil Tarpischev to replace former world No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov in a risky gamble which proved a masterstroke.

Not since 1964 has a team come back from 2-1 down in a final to win the title and Youzhny, like Mathieu aged 20, is the first player to come from two sets down in the final singles to win the Davis Cup.

As Mathieu hit a return of service out to give Youzhny victory on his first match point, the Russian team swamped the clay court to embrace their hero and about 1,500 Russian fans, many crying, roared themselves hoarse in the stands.

Former president Boris Yeltsin, who had watched every match from a front row seat, hauled himself over the barrier and marched on to the court, first to give a bearhug to Tarpischev and then to every member of the team, lingering with Kafelnikov to exchange a few words.

"I was in the mood for victory," Yeltsin said. "Youzhny has a very strong character and is a fighter. I am the talisman."

Tarpischev did not believe Kafelnikov, who was thrashed in the opening singles and lost with Marat Safin in Saturday's doubles, was in the right physical or mental state of mind to play the decider. Safin, however, paid tribute to his teammate.

"Yevgeny has done so much for Russian tennis, we deserved this title," he said.

In Sunday's first reverse singles, Safin battered Sebastien Grosjean into submission 6-3 6-2 7-6 to level the tie at 2-2, an exhausted Safin keeping Russian Cup hopes alive by winning a thrilling third set tiebreak 13-11.

Youzhny had played just five previous Davis Cup singles, losing four of them.

Unfortunately for Russian hopes Youzhny froze on the big stage in the first two sets as Mathieu picked off his second serve, before his superlative backhand brought him back into the match in the third set.

The fourth set featured a spate of breaks of serve but Youzhny's speed around the court continually frustrated Mathieu and he drew level at two sets all on his first set point.

Breaks of serve continued in the fifth set but Youzhny came out on top as the noise in the Bercy stadium reached almost dangerous levels. Youzhny carried on going for his shots right to the end and Mathieu acknowledged that the Russian deserved his victory because of his courage.

"When I was two sets down I decided to carry on playing my game and see what happened," said Youzhny.