Youzhny the Star in Most Dramatic End to Year Possible
Tennis doesn’t get much better than this, in fact it’s hard to think of any sporting spectacle that could exceed this final day for drama. Russia claimed its first-ever Davis Cup by BNP Paribas title when Mikael Youzhny made his own piece of history, becoming the first man in the 102 years of the competition to win a live fifth rubber in the final from two sets adrift.
It was a remarkable achievement for the 20-year-old, who looked down and out after dropping his serve four times in the first 12 games. At 0-3 in the second set he held his head in his towel at the change of ends, and looked close to tears. His team-mates shouted encouragement, Russia’s captain Shamil Tarpishev suggested one or two things he might try, but Youzhny was facing a humiliation in only his second live Davis Cup rubber. His silky, flowing groundstrokes were no match for the raw power of Mathieu, and it looked more of a mismatch than the dramatic conclusion of the tennis year it was to become.
Yet three hours later, Youzhny was Russia’s hero, the unlikely but proud winner 3-6 2-6 6-3 7-5 6-4 in four hours 26 minutes. He was feted by his Russian team-mates plus the country’s most prominent tennis fan, ex-president Boris Yeltsin. Safin described the feeling as being “better than sex”, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov said he would think a few more days before deciding whether to carry out his threat to retire.
But the conclusion of the Davis Cup belonged to Youzhny and his remarkable turnaround. Crucial to it was that he held his serve twice after falling 3-6 0-4 behind, and started taking the ball earlier at the start of the third set. He broke Mathieu early, but the Frenchman – who at 20 made it the youngest live fifth rubber in a Davis Cup final since 1985 – broke straight back to love. Even when Youzhny broke again for 4-2, Mathieu still had the match very much in his grasp.
But by then Youzhny was realising that Mathieu was vulnerable to changes of pace. The judicious use of the slice started reaping more rewards, and Mathieu started to look less potent. He still broke for 4-2, and France again looked to be heading to a 10th Davis Cup title, but Youznhy wasn’t finished, and broke straight back.
Still Mathieu seemed to be in the better position, and at 4-5 deuce he was just two points from victory. But Youzhny’s nerve held, and when he broke again for 6-5 and served out the set, the momentum had really turned.
Youzhny broke in the third game of the final set to take the lead for the first time, but Mathieu was back level at 3-3. But at 4-4 Youzhny sealed the decisive break, and served out the victory to love. It left Mathieu in tears, but one 20-year-old star was always going to be born in this final match of the tennis year, and his name is Mikael Youznhy.