Kafelnikov breaks through, wins first Grand Slam Russian powers past Stich in straight sets

French Open

June 10, 1996|By Robin Finn | Robin Finn,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS -- Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who was told at 16 that he had no promise only to be chided at 20 for not living up to his talent, yesterday became the first Russian to win a Grand Slam title when he defeated Michael Stich in the French Open final, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5, 7-6 (7-4).

The baseline brilliance of Kafelnikov, 22, seeded sixth, proved too much trouble for the 15th-seeded Stich to handle.

Stich's 15 aces didn't save him and his feeble rate of success on first serves skewered him on the sun-kissed Center Court of Roland Garros, a stadium Kafelnikov first visited and became enamored of when he was "a 13-year-old nobody" and the non-playing fifth wheel on the junior team of the former Soviet Union.

Anatoly Lepeshin, the coach of that team and Kafelnikov's only mentor since he was a difficult, underachieving 17-year-old with a dismal junior world ranking of 450th, sobbed in the stands yesterday as he watched his player's breakthrough.

"I was trying to give everything that was still in my body," Kafelnikov said. "I never thought I could do it, win a Grand Slam at age 22, especially after being in the quarterfinals five times in the last two years."

He didn't lose his composure in this 2 1/2 -hour slugfest until he had finally converted on his fourth match point by burying a forehand drive at Stich's shoelaces. With that, Kafelnikov let out a hoot of relief, hurled his racket into the stands and hopped onto the victory podium to kiss his silver trophy and express his thanks to the 27-year-old Stich for being kind enough to let him win.

Kafelnikov said his victory in the men's doubles on this same court on Saturday was the perfect rehearsal for his first appearance in a Grand Slam final. By winning both events, Kafelnikov became the first man to collect both trophies at Roland Garros since Ken Rosewall in 1968. Before Kafelnikov, the last man to collect both titles at a Grand Slam had been Stefan Edberg at the 1987 Australian Open.

Kafelnikov also equates playing lots of matches with having lots of confidence. For the last two years, he has played more matches -- 171 in 1994, when he was named the most improved player on the circuit, and 167 in 1995 -- than anyone else.

His win also preserved a tradition at this Grand Slam where, in the Open era, Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Sergi Bruguera and Thomas Muster all won their first Grand Slam titles on their first attempt.

"I am not going to go any wild," Kafelnikov said of his celebration plans. They focused on getting back to Sochi, the seaside resort that is his hometown, in order to share his trophy with his family.

Against Stich he was overly aggressive, even though he seldom vacated the baseline.

"He was trying to dominate me at the net, but I tried to maintain the deepest from the baseline," Kafelnikov said. "I think I was a little bit more consistent than Michael, almost forcing him to do so many mistakes."

Kafelnikov benefited from a profusion of unforced errors -- 56 -- from the frustrated German.

Stich had tossed his racket in disgust after netting the lazy backhand that lost him the opening set, but that was just the beginning of his discontent. Things turned catastrophic for the 1991 Wimbledon champ when, after taking a 5-2 lead in the second set, he was twice broken as he served for the set at 5-2 and 5-4. He was broken a third time at 5-6 as he tried in vain to force another tiebreaker.

Stich complained that there was a thicker layer of serve-deadening sand on Center Court than there had been in his previous matches. But he admitted that Kafelnikov, who leads their rivalry, 7-3, had the edge on smarts and skill on the important points.

"It was a very even match and I had my chances, enough of them, and I just couldn't take them," Stich said. "I served very badly, didn't serve well when I had to, and that's what it came down to."

Women doubles final

Lindsay Davenport, Murrieta, Calif., and Mary Joe Fernandez, Key Biscayne, Fla. (4), def. Gigi Fernandez, Aspen, Colo., and Natasha Zvereva, Belarus (2), 6-2, 6-1.

Pub Date: 6/10/96

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