Thursday, August 12, 1999

Kafelnikov mum off court


'I don't talk about myself'

BY NEIL SCHMIDT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

kafelnikov
Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        MASON — He is at once everywhere and nowhere, tennis' invisible iron man. Yevgeny Kafelnikov has played more matches than anyone the past five years, yet lurks on the game's fringes, distancing himself from the public and wrestling inner turmoil.

        Wednesday, the No. 2 player in the world didn't even rate Center Court status for his Great American Insurance ATP opener, a 6-1, 6-4 beating of Jonas Bjorkman. Even after willing his way out of a personal funk, the 25-year-old Russian remains reclusive — enigmatic and emotionless on court, unknowable and untouchable off it.

        “I don't talk about myself, my (personal) life,” Kafelnikov said.

        Little wonder he's the sport's unknown soldier. He and the public wage a Cold War of disinterest.

        “It's strange. Many people think I just began (professionally),” he said. “But I've been seven years on tour.

        “There's not many good years left in me to play professional tennis, maybe three or four. I'll try to focus on them and give as much as I can.”

        Kafelnikov is no longer the tragic figure he was in 1998. At last year's ATP, then ranked No. 10, he spoke of losing all motivation: “I guess it's one of those times in my career where I don't give a (expletives)about anything.”

        He was in the midst of big changes. He got married last July, his daughter was born in October, and in December, his grandfather died — Kafelnikov dedicated his Austra lian Open victory in January to him.

        Though he had regained his on-court touch there, it left him just as quickly. He ascended to No. 1 in April despite losing seven consecutive tournament matches, enduring jeers from fans who felt he was tanking losses. He drew a lecture from ATP Tour CEO Mark Miles after a flippant comment about not caring about losing.

        “You can say many things about why I had the slump,” Kafelnikov said. “The pressure was too high at No. 1. The body gets a little tired, while others are picking up. It was definitely not a great couple months in my personal life.”

        Kafelnikov has rebounded, winning eight of his last nine matches, including a masterful 6-1, 6-4 beating of Andre Agassi last Saturday in the du Maurier Open semifinals. Perspective increases daily.

        “A career goes on its ups and downs,” he said. “You travel the same weeks, the same tournaments. You get to the point where you think, "Oh my god, not this all over again.'

        “But that period of time is over. If I didn't love the game, I probably would have retired. I love the game. I love competition. That's one of the things that has kept me going.”

        There is plenty to savor: Two Grand Slams (French and Australian), 19 career tournament titles, an average of 162 matches played per year for a half-decade. He has helped Russia reach two Davis Cup finals.

        Though he avoids the public eye, Kafelnikov is relaxed in the locker room. Fellow players consider him one of the funnier guys on tour.

        “There is satisfaction in winning tough matches, winning tournaments,” he said. “That's when the smile comes.”

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