Yevgeny Kafelnikov is no longer just a can't-miss prospect with a catchy nickname. He's a Grand Slam champion.
Fulfilling the great expectations that have burdened him for two years, Kafelnikov made his breakthrough Sunday by beating Michael Stich in straight sets to win the French Open and become the first Russian to capture a Grand Slam singles title.He came from behind in the last two sets to win 7-6 (7-4), 7-5, 7-6 (7-4) in 21/2 hours, ending the match with a blistering forehand passing shot that handcuffed the 15th-seeded German at the net.
"It is just a dream," the sixth-seeded Kafelnikov said. "I never felt I could do it, winning a Grand Slam at age 22 ... I never felt I could make it."
"The first Grand Slam title really means everything," he said. "For Russia, it means very much. I know I have many supporters in Russia. I'm going to bring that wonderful trophy back to my country."
Kafelnikov became the first man to win the singles and doubles titles at the French Open since Ken Rosewall in 1968. Kafelnikov teamed with Daniel Vacek to win the doubles final on Saturday.
"The doubles yesterday really helped me," he said. "I got used to playing a Grand Slam final on center court."
Kafelnikov also broke the mold of recent French Open champions, who were pure clay-court specialists and baseliners.Although he's not a serve-and-volleyer, the Russian is the first all-court attacking player to win the men's title since France's Yannick Noah in 1983.
Great things have been predicted for Kafelnikov ever since, as a 19-year-old, he extended eventual champion Pete Sampras to five sets in the second round of the 1994 Australian Open. At the time, Sampras predicted Kafelnikov could become No. 1 someday.
Nicknamed "Kalashnikov," after the Russian-made assault rifle, he broke into the top 10 but failed to go all the way at the Grand Slams, earning a reputation as the best player never to win a major.
Kafelnikov said he was thinking of those expectations Sunday.
"Everybody, especially after now, everybody would expect me to become the No. 1 player in the world," he said. "But it doesn't mean that after winning here I will become No. 1. Now for me it is a completely different life beginning because after winning the Grand Slam I will become a huge, huge target for the other players."
Sunday's victory will push him from No. 7 to No. 5 in the next world rankings.
Kafelnikov said there would be no big party to celebrate - "I am not going to go any wild" - and he would fly home to Sochi, a Black Sea coastal resort, to be with his family.
Kafelnikov he wasn't sure what kind of reception he would receive, noting that he has been criticized in the past by the Russian media for his introverted personality.
"I don't know - maybe I will be a hero tomorrow when I step into the airport," he said. "Or maybe I will be the same person."
Kafelnikov is the most active player on the men's circuit, having played 167 matches last year, including 105 in singles. Sunday's final was his 89th match of 1996.
With his 6-foot-3 frame, big serve, powerful groundstrokes and solid volleys, Kafelnikov has the game that could win on all surfaces.
On a perfect spring day, with blue skies and temperatures reaching 82 degrees, he and Stich displayed an unusual variety of shots at Roland Garros. The match had it all: aces, drop shots, lobs, passing shots and groundstrokes of slice and topspin.
There were no breaks in the first set, which went to a tiebreaker. Stich missed two drop shots in a row to go down 6-2. He saved two set points but netted a backhand on the third to lose the set.
Stich went up two breaks at 5-2 in the second set but couldn't convert. Kafelnikov broke back twice, saved a set point at 5-4, and won five straight games to take the set.
"The second set was critical," he said. "If I would have lost that second set, maybe things might turn all the way around."
Stich was up a break in the third at 3-1, but Kafelnikov rallied again and broke back for 4-4.
The Russian saved a break point at 6-5 and forced another tiebreaker. Stich saved a fourth match point at 6-4 with a backhand drop shot. But on the next point, Kafelnikov drilled a forehand pass that bounced off Stich's racket and off his body to end the match.
Kafelnikov tossed his racket high into the stands and held his arms aloft as his fiancee, Maria, and coach, Anatoli Lepeshin, cheered from the players' box.
"I didn't serve well at all," Stich said. "I allowed him to dictate the match. I played two very bad tiebreaks. I had chances in all three sets, but I blew them all."
Getting to the final was an improbable achievement for Stich, who nearly skipped the tournament after recent ankle surgery.
Speaking to the crowd in French, he said, "Maybe I lost a match but I found my love for the sport again."