Kafelnikov & Safin: ATP Cup Victory Could Spark Banner Year For Russians
The ATP Cup is more than a star-filled competition to kick off the 2020 season. Former Russian stalwarts Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin, who both won the Australian Open and reached No. 1 in the ATP Rankings, believe that immediate success in Australia could shape career-defining seasons for the members of Team Russia.
“It’s very important. The way my year in Australia went was often how the rest of the year went,” Kafelnikov said. “Getting to the final or winning the event could help make their year.”
Team captain Safin looks to help guide Russia past Italy, the United States and Norway in Group D action in Perth. World No. 5 Daniil Medvedev and World No. 17 Karen Khachanov will suit up for singles on the Russian squad that also includes Teymuraz Gabashvili, Ivan Nedelko and Konstantin Kravchuk.
Having prevailed in Melbourne in 2005, Safin knows what it takes to succeed Down Under. He believes that being surrounded by the world’s best players is an ideal way to begin the year and the round- robin format will aid in quickly removing any off-season rust.
“It's a perfect setup for this event at the beginning of the year. All the guys are already in Australia and they want to start with a good step in the new year,” Safin said. “You are guaranteed three matches and you have two groups playing in the same spot, so you have a chance to practise day and night to get ready for the beginning of the season. To win with your team at the beginning of the year, I think it’s pretty cool.”
All eyes will be on Medvedev, who picked up more tour-level wins (59) than anyone in 2019. The Russian's magical run in the second half of the year included his first two ATP Masters 1000 titles in Cincinnati (d. Goffin) and Shanghai (d. Zverev), in addition to a maiden crown on home soil at the St. Petersburg Open (d. Coric) and debut Grand Slam final at the US Open (l. to Nadal). His inspired play fittingly led to a debut appearance at the season-ending Nitto ATP Finals.
Now that Medvedev has elevated himself to the highest echelon of the sport, Kafelnikov wants to see him stay there. The 1999 Australian Open champion admired Medvedev’s mental fortitude against the world’s best this year and said maintaining it will be essential as he looks to break into the Top 3.
“The confidence level was very good this year. He believed he could beat top players and that’s why he got these results,” Kafelnikov said. “If he can repeat that success next year, he’ll be along that elite row.”
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Kafelnikov is also eager to see Khachanov continue to build on his powerful game. The 23-year-old made his Top 10 debut in July and reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final this year at Roland Garros. But what makes Kafelnikov most excited is that the rising Russian “can still improve his game in all areas”, yet is already capable of beating anyone when he’s in top form.
Kafelnikov and Safin both thrived on representing their country throughout their careers. Kafelnikov earned a gold medal in singles at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Both men know firsthand that team competitions can inspire players to elevate their games and are optimistic that the unique environment of the ATP Cup will help the Russian squad deliver their best tennis.
“We compete on a daily basis just for yourself, so playing for your country is a bit different,” Kafelnikov said. “I always had that spark playing for Russia, so hopefully they have the same when they go out there.”