Round: World Group Final
Dates: 29 November - 1 December, 2002
Venue: Palais Omnisports Paris Bercy, Paris
Having finished runner-up twice in the 1990s, Russia travelled to Paris going in search of its first Davis Cup title. In contrast to its two previous trips to the Final, expectations were high as the team now starred Marat Safin alongside Yevgeny Kafelnikov, both former world No. 1s.
Safin, at the time, was ranked No. 3 in the world. The charismatic right-hander, who had won the US Open two years earlier, enjoyed the perfect preparation for the Final, winning the Masters event in the same city the previous month.
Kafelnikov, meanwhile, reached the peak of his powers in 1999, but was still ranked in the Top 10 for the majority of 2002. During a prolific career, he won 26 singles titles, including two Grand Slams, and compiled a 44-28 winning record in Davis Cup play.
France, on the other hand, was the defending champion, having triumphed for the ninth time the previous year. The French side lacked a Top 10 player, but, with Sebastien Grosjean, Nicolas Escude, Fabrice Santoro and Paul-Henri Mathieu, possessed considerable strength in depth.
France in driving seat
The opening rubber saw Safin take on debutante Mathieu, who had been brought into the line-up at the last minute to replace the injured Arnaud Clement. After some verbal jousting during the previous day’s press conference, the Russian, although not playing at his best, came out on top, winning 64 36 61 64 to give first blood to the visitors.
“You have to understand that I was nervous, of course,” said Safin, clearly relieved to have given Russia the early lead. “It's a Davis Cup Final, the first match, first point, in front of all the crowd that is cheering for France. It's difficult to play your best."
The pressure was firmly on Grosjean in the second rubber against Kafelnikov, and the home favourite did not disappoint as he produced one of the best displays of his career. After falling a break down early in the first set, the Frenchman roared back to claim a 76(3) 63 60 victory and level the score at 1-1.
“It’s one of my best performances in Davis Cup,” said Grosjean, who had never previously won a live rubber in a Davis Cup Final. “It goes with my performances in the semifinals at Roland Garros as the best matches I’ve played for France.”
With the tie delicately poised, Saturday’s doubles rubber took on added incentive, as not since 1964 had a team battled back from 1-2 to win in a Final. So, when the fresh legged duo of Escude and Santoro defeated Safin and Kafelnikov 63 36 57 63 64 to edge the home side ahead, it looked like the famous trophy would be staying in the French capital.
Russia stages unlikely comeback
The Russians, however, had other ideas, and Safin triumphed 63 62 76(11) over Grosjean in the battle of the No. 1s, leaving the tie all-square. The Muscovite cruised through the opening two sets, later describing his tennis as ‘inspired’, but was forced to stave off four set points in the third before eventually sealing victory.
What happened next will go down in the tennis annals. Kafelnikov, who had struggled for form all weekend, stepped down to make way for Russia’s No. 3, Mikhail Youzhny, in the crucial fifth rubber. The inexperienced 20-year-old faced Mathieu, in what would be the biggest match in the careers of both young players.
Mathieu got off to a flying start and raced into a two-set lead, as the silky, flowing ground strokes of Youzhny were no match for the Frenchman’s raw power. The Russian, however, spurred on by words of encouragement from his teammates and captain, began to claw his way back into the match. He started to take the ball early and cleverly mixed slice and topspin, realising his opponent was vulnerable to changes of pace.
Three hours after burying his head in his towel in disbelief, and after being just two points from defeat in the third set, Youzhny completed the most unlikely victory. He broke Mathieu’s serve at 44 in the decider and then held to love, finally winning 36 26 63 75 64. This is the only time in the history of the competition that a two-set deficit has been turned around in a live fifth rubber of a Final.
“It’s one of the best times of my career, but it’s not my hour it’s our team’s victory,” said Youzhny, who was quick to point out the role of his compatriots. “Even when I was two sets down I knew I should just keep playing my game.”
Safin, the main catalyst for Russia's first ever Davis Cup title, summed up the moment as ‘better than sex’!