To Kafelnikov, No. 1 is a touchy subject

Losing run left Russian on top and unfulfilled

August 30, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Yevgeny Kafelnikov is a quiet man. He has a sweet smile and blond hair that he wears like the Beatles wore theirs in the 1960s. On court, he is a tenacious player who develops his points on the baseline before working his way to the net for a stunning finish.

He stands shoulder to shoulder with No. 1 Pete Sampras, No. 2 Andre Agassi and No. 4 Patrick Rafter going into the U.S. Open, the Grand Slam tennis tournament that begins today in New York.

But when it comes to getting noticed, the world's No. 3 player is not usually one for the spotlight.

"I think he's a little misunderstood," said his coach, Larry Stefanki. "He comes from Russia, and people are still a little put off by that. But he's a very nice guy."

As if to prove it, Kafelnikov came off the practice court at the recent Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, put down his tennis bag, held out his hand and said, "Very nice to meet you."

It was a simple courtesy, but one that is uncommon in the hectic pro tennis world. He then sat down on a shady bench and resigned himself to answering questions.

"Not the same questions," he said hopefully, with a tentative smile.

The questions Kafelnikov has heard enough of are the ones concerning his time at No. 1.

He had started the year with Stefanki, his new coach, by winning the Australian Open. By May 10, he was ranked No. 1. It should have been a joyous time.

But it wasn't. He became No. 1 despite losing six first-round matches over four months. Everywhere he was asked to defend his ranking.

"It was not a nice time for me," he said. "I felt I deserved to be No. 1. I had the points to be No. 1. But it came when I wasn't winning too much. I wasn't losing because I was No. 1; it was the other way round. I lost, and then I was No. 1."

Stefanki said many have misread that situation and overlooked what has been going on in the young Russian's life.

"He has been a pro since he was 17," Stefanki said. "He travels 35 weeks a year and has played more matches than anyone else on the tour. He's done that for seven years and then, over the past 12 months, he got married and became the father of two kids, won the Australian Open and made it to No. 1.

"It can be very stressful, and Yevgeny is not a 52-year-old president of some corporation. It was a new situation, with new responsibilities and for four months nothing good happened.

"Now it is."

Tennis has a way of exacting a toll. Over the past two years burnout has almost cost the ATP Tour Agassi, Andrei Medvedev and Kafelnikov. Agassi dropped into the 140s before rededicating himself; Medvedev was on the verge of quitting, when he noticed his ranking at 103 and decided it wasn't where he wanted to be and became revitalized.

Kafelnikov, at 24, was having similar feelings. He had won the French Open in 1996, but early last year, he felt depleted, as if his time had passed.

"I didn't have many dreams left," he said.

Then a number of things happened. He and his long-time girlfriend, Mascha, got married and had a baby girl.

"I have definitely changed," said Kafelnikov, now 25. "I am not young boy anymore. I have responsibilities. I've got to take care of my wife and child."

Kafelnikov is happy to talk about his family. When he married Mascha in July 1998, she was the mother of a 4-year-old daughter. His family grew when their daughter was born in October.

"I wasn't able to be there for the birth, because I was at a tournament," Kafelnikov said. "But I got there that night. I saw Aleysa for the first time and she was crying. And she was beautiful.

"I play for them," Kafelnikov said softly. "You know, life on the tour is quite different from other life. You are away from family and friends and, at times, you just feel like, `Oh, God, I got to go home.' But you can't go home."

Wanting someone to lean on and someone to help him restart his career, Kafelnikov hired Stefanki last December. The Florida resident had played on the tour for nine years before turning to coaching. He knows first-hand what it takes to survive.

He also knows what it takes to get to the top of the game. Stefanki coached John McEnroe the final two years of his career, helping him back into the top 10. More recently, he coached Marcelo Rios to a brief appearance at No. 1 before being let go.

Stefanki said Kafelnikov is not making excuses. "He is working very hard, and Mascha has been very, very good for him. She's instilled that he is a great player."

Still, Kafelnikov said, to win the Open, circumstances have to be in your favor.

"You have to have a couple easy matches," he said. "If you start with trouble from your very first match, seven matches, best-of-five, can take a lot of energy out of your body.

"I've never had a good draw there in the past, and I wasn't at the peak of my game. But I am hoping it will be better for me this time. I do like the hard courts."

Kafelnikov is on the Agassi side of the draw, meaning he won't see the No. 1 seed until the finale, and his first-round match is against No. 55 Alberto Martin of Spain.

"He's eager to be No. 1 at the end of the year, and he's on the doorstep," said Stefanki, noting he has two semifinal and two final appearances in his past four tournaments, most recently finishing runner-up to Agassi in Washington. "He's got the tools and ability and when he's serving at his best, he can definitely beat Pete."

Kafelnikov looks up from under his Beatles bangs.

"I'd like to win the U.S. Open," he said. "It would be nice."

Featured matches

Men's singles today

Andre Agassi (2) vs. Nicklas Kulti

Yevgeny Kafelnikov (3) vs. Alberto Martin

Carlos Moya (8) vs. Dominik Hrbaty

Women's singles today

Martina Hingis (1) vs. Kveta Hrdlickova

Venus Williams (3) vs. Tatiana Poutchek

Amanda Coetzer (6) vs. Irina Spirlea

U.S. Open

When: Today through Sept. 12

Where: National Tennis Center, New York

Top seeds: Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis

Defending champions: Patrick Rafter, Lindsay Davenport

Today's TV: USA Network, 11 a.m., 7: 30 p.m.; Ch. 13, 12: 35 a.m. (highlights)

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