I don't know where to laugh, cry, or roll my eyes
Although he did not live up to his promise as being the heir to Pete Sampras' throne, Yevgeny Kafelnikov has had a great career. But for all his achievements -- 26 titles, including two Grand Slams, and an Olympic gold medal -- he has always received little publicity in comparison to other top pros. Could you put the Y-Man's career into perspective now that he plans to retire?
—Cindy, Sydney, Australia
First off, not so fast, Cindy. As of Monday, the Y-Man was backing off his claim. He had vowed to retire if he led Russia to the Davis Cup. In a bit of Clintonian phrase-parsing, he is now saying that since he didn't technically lead Russia to victory, he may still play in 2003. However, my hunch is that -- particularly given his desultory performance last weekend, in which he was decidedly off -- he'll come to the realization that it's curtains time.
So what is Kafelnikov's epitaph? It really depends on how harshly you want to judge him. The charitable answer goes something like this: Say what you will about his erratic play and his reputation for tanking, the guy's record speaks for itself. Two Slams, an Olympic gold, a handful of smaller titles, a brief stint atop the rankings, and now a Davis Cup. Those are Hall of Fame credentials and a résumé that 99 percent of the players on tour would kill for. End of discussion.
As for the flip side, I was discussing Kafelnikov with a prominent tennis writer who is not a fan. He points out that when Kafelnikov won the French Open in 1996, he beat Sampras in the semifinals on a hot day and then Michael Stich -- no one's clay-court specialist -- in the final. In the 1999 Australian Open Kafelnikov beat a lackluster Thomas Enqvist in the final, and he struck gold at the Olympics without Sampras and Andre Agassi in the field. "You don't think of him as a guy who won many gutsy matches," said the scribe. "And for all his talent, two Grand Slams is modest."
I'll take the safe middle. Sort of. Yes, Kafelnikov is Hall of Fame-bound and his career compares favorably with other contemporaries not named Pete or Andre. And for all the talk of his sour disposition, his fighting for full custody of his daughter says more about his character than a cutesy soundbite. But there is a nagging, inescapable sense that he never "laid it on the line," as they say. If he was on that particular day, he'd win. If not, he'd lose, no matter how inferior the opponent. His stint at No. 1 was an embarrassment -- a string of opening-round losses to powerhouses like Markus Hantschk and Ivan Ljubicic -- that may have been the final straw in doing away with the 52-week rankings. Plus, his near-pathological pursuit of prize money and appearance fees ended up cutting short his career. The guy is only 28, but when you play 30-plus events year in and year out, it exacts a price.
This is a reach, but I feel about Kafelnikov the way I feel about the new Harry Potter movie. Objectively, it's hard to carp too much, and certainly nothing was wrong with it. But with so much potential and promise, it was hard not to feel a little deflated when the ride ended.