Davis Cup final
Yevgeny Kafelnikov says he will quit if Russia win the Davis Cup this week.
Sunday November 24, 2002
If Yevgeny Kafelnikov were British, he would be the stuff of tabloid dreams. He is Tim Henman's polar opposite: indiscreet, contrary, has a dodgy private life - and is a grand-slam tennis champion. As it is, the stolid-looking Russian with a perfunctory manner has attracted little publicity and may be about to attract even less. In a week's time, after the Davis Cup final in Paris, we may be saying farewell to someone who has been an almost constant presence among the world's top-10 tennis players over the past decade.
In his famous quote about Russia being 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma', Sir Winston Churchill added that perhaps the key was Russian national interest. Which is uncannily close to summing up Kafelnikov, who was described by his former coach, Larry Stefanki, as 'a stubborn Russian nut'. Most of those who have lived alongside him on the men's tennis tour - players and officials - agree that he is virtually unknowable beyond his overarching sense of being Russian.
Kafelnikov says what he wants regardless of what others may think. When last year he said players were not getting their fair share of prize money, Andre Agassi suggested he should 'go buy himself some perspective', while Pete Sampras reckoned: 'We're all overpaid.' Kafelnikov countered that he did not 'really care what the American democratic opinion is'.
If there was a hint in this last remark of a backlash from what President Reagan called the Evil Empire, it would be in keeping with the usually bolshie Kafelnikov suddenly behaving like a servile child whenever answering the call of Mother Russia. He has supported the Kremlin Cup in Moscow with a passion that his professional colleagues marvel at. He says that in 2000 he used his name and reputation as a guarantee to keep what he calls 'his' tournament alive. In most other events, Kafelnikov is detached to a point of sometimes appearing not to care, but in the Russian capital he summons a remarkable commitment. He won the event for five years in a row from 1997.
Now, at 28 - the same age as Henman - he says he will retire if he achieves what he craves, helping Russia to win their first Davis Cup, the world championship for national men's teams, in which he will compete with Marat Safin on an indoor clay court against France. He played in both Russia's previous finals, in 1994 and 1995, in Moscow and was crestfallen that they lost both times.
The keen supporter of Spartak Moscow football team says: 'Some day, I surely will live in Moscow and do everything to improve people's lives.' He had hoped to win the Paris Open three weeks ago so that he could contribute the prize money to the fund for victims of last month's attack on a Moscow theatre. Last year he donated the $137,000 prize for winning the Kremlin Cup to families who lost relatives in a plane crash near his hometown of Sochi on the Black Sea.
It is extraordinary that so little is known about him given his record: finishing in the world's top 10 six times in the past seven years, briefly rising to number one in 1999; winner of two grand slams, the French Open in 1996 and the Australian Open three years later; and a gold medallist at the 2000 Olympics. He likes to give the impression he is just a regular guy, but doesn't do it very convincingly. 'I don't go to any extremes,' he says, 'although sometimes I want to do something shocking, like turn up on the court in a tank.'
Even in Russia, his widely publicised achievements as a player contrast with an absence of well-authenticated details of his private life. The void has been filled with lurid stories that suggest that when he's not playing tennis - or golf ('I play every day when I have no tennis. Is routine... is good for planning, for relaxing) - he is either gambling or keeping bad company.
It is known that he likes a wager when playing golf against fellow players and a flutter when there is a casino nearby. After a bad run at a Melbourne casino during the 1999 Australian Open, when he was reportedly betting on the black, he said: 'I was quite down these weeks, so I kind of stay away from that place for a little while.' Whether he likes more than a flutter has been the subject of some reasonably well-informed speculation, as have his association with the Russian underworld. He has publicly acknowledged his friendship with Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, the alleged gangster who has been charged by the US government with fixing figure-skating competitions at this year's Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Speculation about the women in his life subsided when he began a steady relationship in 1996 with Masha Tishkova, a divorcee who gave up a modelling career on Kafelnikov's insistence. He adopted Tishkova's daughter, Diana, from her first marriage and happily proclaimed the settling effect of their relationship.
It didn't take long, though, for stories to circulate that all was not well between them, including one that the real reason for his missing the 1998 Australian Open was that he picked up an injury not playing tennis but during a domestic disagreement. Regardless, they married in June that year and their daughter, Aleysa, was born the following October.
The marriage is now over, after litigation in courts in Switzerland and Russia. Some Russian press reports said that Kafelnikov precipitated the break-up by being seen in nightclubs with other women, but Tishkova's association with a religious cult that her first husband belonged to has also been cited as a reason. Kafelnikov won custody of their daughter who is now, according to reports, living in Sochi with his parents.
Kafelnikov's relationships within tennis have been no less troubled. He thought he had found a soulmate in the American coach Stefanki, extolling their partnership soon after they teamed up. A Russian tennis writer questioned this immediately. 'It's hard to believe in the miraculous impact of Stefanki,' he wrote. 'One can't reforge Kafelnikov in one month, even if one uses golden horseshoes with golden nails. It is just not his character.' He was right and Stefanki went on to choose the less stressful option of coaching Henman.
It would be glib to say we will miss Kafelnikov when he goes, because we will not really know what we are missing. As he says: 'Two, maybe three people really know me - but with everyone else, I want to be in the shadow. I'm sort of like the cobra.'
Paris showdown the details
France: Sebastien Grosjean, Arnaud Clement, Nicolas Escude, Fabrice Santoro Captain Guy Forget
Russia: Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marat Safin, Mikhail Youzhny, Andrei Stoliarov Captain Shamil Tarpischev Schedule Friday two singles; Saturday doubles; Sunday two singles Venue Palais Omnisports Paris Bercy TV Sky Sports
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