You could hear the murmurs echo through the humidity that settled over the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center last night. No. 1 seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov hadn't won a game in the first set of his second-round match at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, and the crowd was buzzing, wondering whether the erratic Russian was going to bother to fight his way back.
A year ago, he may not have. But last night Kafelnikov buckled down and pulled out an 0-6, 6-2, 6-4 win over Zimbabwe's Wayne Black. Black's brother Byron, the No. 12 seed, didn't fare much better as he lost to Martin Damm, but the rest of the seeds, including Todd Martin and Marat Safin, advanced.
None had as patchy a match as the 25-year-old Kafelnikov, however.
"When I was down 6-0, in other circumstances I may not have tried, but now I compete very hard," said Kafelnikov, who initially had trouble adjusting to conditions on a day that included 105-degree on-court temperatures. "The career goes up and down. Last year was the down."
The 1998 season was certainly hard on Kafelnikov, who not only saw his ranking drop out of the top 10 but also saw his will to play slip away. He kept pounding away, leading the ATP Tour with 150 matches played (30 more than anyone else on the tour), but he was often despondent, saying at one point that he had "no more dreams" and at another that "I think I have no ambition."
Then at the end of the year, a few things started to change. In October, his wife gave birth to a baby girl. In December, he got a new coach, Larry Stefanki, and three weeks later, he was playing at the Australian Open with a whole new attitude. Lively and motivated, he won the trophy, regaining the form he flashed when he won the French Open title in 1996.
"My new relationship with Larry completely turned things around," Kafelnikov said. "He's a great motivator, and that's the aspect I was missing. It's nice when you step onto the court and you know you are responsible to someone.
"It must be really working because I never had such a great year. I reached number one this year, so that's pretty great."
Of course, because this is Kafelnikov, not even success has come easy. He went through a rotten patch of play in the spring, losing his opening-round match in six straight tournaments. It was the following week that he became No. 1, unseating Pete Sampras after Sampras was unable to defend his points from the previous year. His position became a rallying point for those looking to revamp the ATP ranking system -- which, in fact, will be overhauled next season -- and the stress turned out to be too much for him to bear.
After six weeks he lost the top spot. He sits at No. 2, once again behind Sampras.
"He was a little bit overwhelmed when he became number one -- it was a little bit out of his comfort zone," Stefanki said. "Now he's a lot more ready to be number one. You can tell because he's gotten to the point where he's winning the close matches."
Kafelnikov showed strong initiative last night, rebounding from his disastrous first set by breaking Black in the opening game of the second. He broke again later in the set when Black double-faulted three times, and he continued to look steady in the third set to take the match.
Martin had a much calmer evening, defeating Denmark's Kristian Pless, 6-4, 6-4, to advance to the third round. Pless never had a break opportunity as Martin's steady serves carried him through. Afterward, Martin expressed pleasure with both his game and the surface on Stadium Court, which is playing relatively slow.
"The tennis at this tournament will be better than the tennis at Cincinnati and Montreal because the courts are so fast there," he said. "Here you will see more matches where both guys are able to play to their highest level of tennis."
Yesterday did see the departure of promising 19-year-old James Blake, who left Harvard this year to turn professional. Blake, the practice player on the U.S. Davis Cup team last month, lost, 6-4, 6-1, to Peter Wessels. American Justin Gimelstob advanced, defeating hard-serving Australian Wayne Arthurs, 6-4, 6-1, as did 34-year-old Haitian Ronald Agenor, the oldest player in the draw.
Safin also advanced, defeating Canadian Sebastien Lareau, 7-5, 7-6 (7-2). The explosive if erratic 19-year-old said he looks up to players such as Kafelnikov, the first Russian to become No. 1, although he is still focusing on his own game.
"We're definitely friends -- he's a nice person and we have the same job," Safin said. "But we're not like the Spanish guys, you know, saying `I love you' and hugging all the time."