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Kafelnikov Reigns as First Russian With French Crown

By William Drozdiak
Washington Post Foreign Service

PARIS, JUNE 9 — Yevgeni Kafelnikov, looking calm, cool and reposed on a hot afternoon, raised the level of his game just when it counted today to demolish Germany's Michael Stich and become the first Russian to capture a Grand Slam title by winning the French Open, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5, 7-6 (7-4).

The 22-year-old Russian from the Black Sea resort of Sochi seemed impervious to pressure as he repulsed his older and more experienced opponent during two key tiebreaks to seal the match. At nearly every turning point, he lived up to his nickname of "Kalashnikov" — the famed Russian rifle — by firing a dominating array of backhands and forehands past a hapless and beleaguered Stich.

Kafelnikov reached the final by crushing the world's No. 1 player, Pete Sampras, in the semifinals and dropping only one set during the tournament. His ascendancy on the world tennis circuit has restored a new sense of glory to his country's sports culture, which has struggled to cope with the collapse of the Soviet Union's once-vaunted athletic machine.

Even more remarkably, he became the first man since Ken Rosewall in 1968 to snare both the singles and the doubles trophy at the French Open. On Saturday, he and his Czech partner, Daniel Vacek, took the men's doubles in straight sets from France's Guy Forget and Switzerland's Jakob Hlasek.

Kafelnikov, renowned for his iron constitution, easily survived the heat and humidity that plagued many players this year and seemed unfazed by the center court spotlight in front of 16,000 spectators. His victory will elevate him two places to No. 5 in the ATP ratings.

Even among his peers, the Russian is regarded as a tennis fanatic. He started knocking balls around at the age of 5; even today, according to Forget, "his idea of vacation is to rush out and find another tournament to play in."

As he savored the applause and hoisted the winner's trophy at Roland Garros Stadium, Kafelnikov's cool demeanor finally cracked. "I feel really nervous right now. Today is one of the most glorious days of my life, winning the first Grand Slam tournament of my professional career."

He thanked Stich for "letting" him win the trophy, acknowledging that the German "will have many more chances to win more than me" and add to his Wimbledon title of 1991. For Stich, just making it to the final in a tournament he almost skipped because of a career-threatening ankle injury was a considerable personal triumph.

As the 15th seed, Stich entered the match as an underdog to the Russian, who was No. 6. Even though clay is not his favorite surface, the German star performed surprisingly well, knocking off the king of clay, defending champion Thomas Muster, and showing a new-found confidence in his ability to alter tactics on the slower surface.

The two players matched wits evenly during the opening set, splitting the first 12 games without a service break. Then Kafelnikov stepped on the accelerator, jumping out to a 3-0 lead before icing the first tiebreak, 7-4.

In the second set, Stich regained his momentum and seemed bent on balancing the match when he jumped ahead 5-2. But the German, perhaps suffering from a long absence because of foot surgery this spring, seemed to go flat and gave the Russian a fresh chance to seize control of the match. Stich surrendered three serves in a row as Kafelnikov played almost flawless tennis to close out the second set with five straight games.

With the match on the line, Stich changed into a fresh green shirt that was his emblem of success during the upset victory over Muster. But this time, his good luck charm proved futile. Kafelnikov roared back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the set at 4-4 as Stich fluffed an easy volley.

Stich then served up two double faults, before rallying to thwart the Russian on two match points. But the second tiebreak was to unfold just like the first. Kafelnikov rushed out to a 3-0 lead and stayed in control with a feathery lob that gave him a third match point. Stich recovered one more time with a surgical drop shot, then succumbed with another failed volley that landed in the net.

Stich acknowledged that the Russian deserved to win but that he came away from the French Open this year with a different attitude to his sport, focused more on enjoyment rather than money. "I might have lost a match, but I've recaptured my love for the sport."

In spite of the brazen manner in which he played, Kafelnikov said he felt rattled on center court. "After a few games, it became obvious that the game would be tight. At times, I thought that I would never win it."

Unlike other players who are dying for a break after the exhausting string of matches on clay, Kafelnikov says he is eager to move on to Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to see if his fortunes continue to rise at other Grand Slams. "I think I'm just getting started," he said, assessing his play here. "I'm still a long way from reaching the peak of my game."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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