A star on the rise

September 01, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Yevgeny Kafelnikov wanted to scream at the gods of tennis. Instead, he screamed at the line judge, screamed at the umpire, beat up several tennis balls and banged his racket on the court.

Later, with a straight face, he said the Stadium Court crowd was unruly.

"The conditions, a nightmare," said the 20-year-old from Sochi, Russia, who is playing in his first U.S. Open.

He was not penalized for any of his on-court antics, and two hours later one of the hottest players on the men's pro tennis tour was through his first-round match with a 7-6 (7-4), 7-5, 6-3 victory over Jacco Eltingh.

Now the No. 14 seed will face Martin Damm, a 6-2, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 winner over Fernando Meligeni yesterday, in the second round tomorrow.

"I never expected to be on Stadium Court," said Kafelnikov. "It is such a big court and it was really tough to concentrate because of all the noise and people walking between points. I was warned about how it is, but I did not think it would be so much distraction. It is not peaceful."

And then there were those "outrageous" calls.

"There I was serving for the first set and I get those two bad calls," he said, brows furrowed with remembered worry. "I don't know, maybe -- I don't know if linesmen did it on purpose, but I mean, I was sure the ball was going out, that it was out, and twice he said ball was good and I was angry with that.

"Those two calls could have cost me the match but I think getting angry helped me win. It made me start to fight. I mean, I saved four set points. Getting mad made me concentrate and made me think I do not want to lose the first round at the U.S. Open."

Kafelnikov, who turned pro in 1992, started this season as the 104th-ranked player in the world. Since then, he has put together 52 victories. Only world No. 1 Pete Sampras, who has 58 following yesterday's 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 win over Kevin Ullyett, and No. 3 Sergi Bruguera, who has 56, have more.

Kafelnikov now is ranked No. 11. It has been a meteoric rise, and he has a clear perception of how to keep on soaring.

"If I do well here, win two or three matches, I can make Top 10," he said. "So far, I have done a great job all year and I won the Hamlet. I even got a new, expensive watch for winning the Hamlet. I never have one before.

"But now I feel I can go further than even second round. But, if I don't. Next time."

To do well here, he will have to overcome a 13-year tradition.

Coming here as the Hamlet Cup winner, he is in good company. But though past Cup winners have included Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi, no Cup winner has ever won the U.S. Open in the same year he won the Hamlet.

But Kafelnikov already has been given a break here. Instead of having to play his first-round match Tuesday, after only one day's rest, he was allowed to play yesterday, as the Open spread its first-round matches over three days.

And already he has surpassed the performances of Hamlet winners Edberg (1990), Petr Korda (1992) and Marc Rosset (1993), who all won the Hamlet and went on to lose their first-round matches here.

"I think Kafelnikov has a great serve and great ground strokes," said Eltingh, who is ranked 34th. "But he doesn't take full advantage of the ground strokes, because he doesn't come to the net that often. And even though he put his first serve in a lot [70 percent of the time], I still had a lot of set points and break points."

Asked if those first-set opportunities came because Kafelnikov became angry and lost concentration, Eltingh shrugged.

"If I had managed to win that first-set tiebreaker, the temper might have hurt him," he said. "I'd like to see how he would be playing then. But, you know, how do you say it? He won and the winner is always right. In this case, he was getting angry and he won, so he is doing a really good job.

"His potential is great. In this match, he showed unbelievable passing shots, especially when I would come in really well with a really good approach, and he would still hit it by me with such speed. He has excellent acceleration on the ball. It will give trouble."

Over the past eight months, it has given other men on the pro tour a lot of trouble, as he has shown flashes of being perhaps the game's next great player.

The 6-foot-3 right-hander began playing tennis at age 6 in Sochi, about 20 minutes from the Georgian border. He is the son of Aleksandre, a high school volleyball coach, and Valentina, who played high school basketball. They taught him to appreciate many sports.

And though tennis won his sporting heart as a career, he also has a fondness for soccer, rooting for Milan, and hockey, throwing his support behind the Detroit Red Wings and their Russian star Sergei Fedorov.

"And I also like fishing very much," he said. "That is peaceful."

Not at all like the U.S. Open.

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