Saturday, August 14, 1999

Rafter, Kafelnikov playing their best




BY NEIL SCHMIDT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

rafter
Patrick Rafter
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        MASON — Patrick Rafter soaks up summer like a solar panel. Turn up the heat and tighten the racket strings.

        But his Great American Insurance ATP semifinal foe, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, also has warmed with the weather. The Russian's recent run will net the No.1 ranking if he wins this tournament.

        Some like it hot. When these two meet at 8 tonight, expect a firefight.

THE SKINNY
  Rafter vs. Kafelnikov, 8 p.m., Center Court
  • Series:
Kafelnikov leads 3-1.
  • Last meeting: Rafter won 7-5, 6-0 last year here.
  • Fun fact: Rafter has won eight straight matches in this event; Kafelnikov has won six of his last seven here.
        “I feel like summer's back again,” Rafter said. “Right now it can't get any better.”

        Said Kafelnikov: “My confidence is growing with each match I play on hard courts. ... And he always seems to pick up his game in the summer, whereas all the other guys are taking holidays and stuff.”

        The fourth-seeded Kafelnikov had a mental vacation early this year, losing seven straight tournament matches. Of that sleepy stretch, he says, “The bedtime is behind me.”

        Kafelnikov, who beat fifth-seeded Tim Henman 7-5, 7-5 Friday, has risen to the No.2 world ranking. He has won 10 of his past 12 matches and reached the semifinals of three consecutive tournaments.

        “He made life difficult for me today,” Henman said. “He is really on a roll, playing so consistently.”

        Rafter, seeded second and ranked fourth, blitzed two-time ATP champ Michael Chang 6-2, 6-1 in 65 minutes Friday. Rafter normally catches fire midway through the hardcourt season, which has paid off with back-to-back U.S. Open titles.

        Kafelnikov leads his series with Rafter 3-1, though Rafter won the last meeting: 7-5, 6-0 in the semis here last year. Rafter went on to win the tournament.

        “He beat me pretty handily,” Kafelnikov said. “At that time, he was playing pretty well.”

        Now back in top form, Rafter credits a heavy match schedule.

        “It has been a combo of a lot of tennis in Europe and then Davis Cup play getting me ready,” Rafter said. “Now I've put two (good) matches together here back to back.”

        Rafter lost just four points on his serve Friday.

        “My serve was right on,” he said. “And I don't hit my groundstrokes usually that well.”

        Rafter probably won't get another Kafelnikov meltdown like the one last year. Kafelnikov, struggling with personal problems, led that match 5-4 but lost the last nine games.

        “I think definitely his mind's screwed on a lot better,” Rafter said. “He looks like he's really serious at the moment.”

        The only goal for Y.K. is to be No.1 for Y2K. “That would be the ultimate, to finish the year No.1,” Kafelnikov said.

        Since he could seize the top spot by winning here, such a reign isn't unrealistic.

        “I really hope that it happens this week with the way that I am playing,” he said.

        That's a nod back to April, when he ascended to No.1 for the first time despite losing seven consecutive tournament matches. He since has called the timing of the ranking embarrassing.

        “It wasn't such a great year, because I was losing many matches in a row,” he said. “But it seems to me if I accomplish that goal again, especially in this tournament, it would be a very big thing, very proud.”

       



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