Yevgeny Kafelnikov: The Man Who Sparked Tennis' Russian Revolution
First week at No. 1: 3 May 1999
Total weeks at No. 1: 6
At World No. 1
Yevgeny Kafelnikov overtook Pete Sampras to become No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings on 3 May 1999, remaining atop tennis’ mountain for six weeks. “I think it’s the ultimate goal for every professional tennis player, to be able to reach that pinnacle. That’s what we play for,” Kafelnikov told ATPTour.com. “It’s one of the most enjoyable accomplishments from my career.”
Kafelnikov made national history by becoming the first Russian to reach World No. 1. At the time, there was only one other Russian in the Top 100: Marat Safin, who reached World No. 1 the following year.
Grand Slam Highlights
Kafelnikov arrived at 1996 Roland Garros as one of the tournament favourites, crushing World No. 1 Pete Sampras in Dusseldorf the week before the clay-court Grand Slam. Four of the Top 5 seeds lost by the fourth round and Kafelnikov took full advantage.
The 22-year-old felt in great physical shape during the fortnight, going for four eight-kilometre runs around Court Philippe Chatrier during the tournament. Kafelnikov earned his second and final ATP Head2Head win against Sampras in the semi-finals before overcoming surprising cramps late in the championship match against Michael Stich to become the first Russian Grand Slam singles champion. He also won the doubles title alongside Daniel Vacek. No man has won the singles and doubles trophy at the same major since.
“I’ve got news for you: Nobody will [do it again] for a very long time,” Kafelnikov said. “If you ask me when the next time we’re going to see a champion in singles and doubles at the same Slam, I don’t see that happening for many, many years to come.”
Kafelnikov won his second and final major singles title at the 1999 Australian Open, beating five players who reached the Top 5 of the FedEx ATP Rankings to lift the trophy. That victory helped propel the Russian to World No. 1 later in the year. He also won Grand Slam doubles titles at Roland Garros in 1997 (w/Vacek) and 2002 (w/Haarhuis) as well as the 1997 US Open (w/Vacek).
Nitto ATP Finals Highlights
Kafelnikov competed at the ATP Tour’s season finale, now called the Nitto ATP Finals, seven times. The Russian advanced through round-robin play three times, highlighted by a trip to the championship match in 1997. He battled past Carlos Moya in two tie-breaks to reach the final in Germany, but was unable to challenge Sampras, who triumphed in straight sets.
The International Tennis Hall of Famer (inducted in 2019) won his first ATP Tour match at 1992 Moscow, defeating Spaniard Marcos Aurelio Gorriz. That proved a happy hunting ground for the home favourite, as Kafelnikov won five consecutive titles at the tournament from 1997-2001. He lost in the 1996 final against Goran Ivanisevic before winning 28 consecutive matches in Moscow.
Kafelnikov was a model of consistency during his career, winning multiple titles each year from 1994-2002. Kafelnikov claimed 26 tour-level singles titles. Although he never claimed ATP Masters 1000 glory, the right-hander made five championship matches at that level. He proved capable on all surfaces, winning ATP Tour titles on clay, hard, grass and carpet. He completed his singles career at 2003 St. Petersburg, falling in the second round against rising Russian star Mikhail Youzhny. In doubles, Kafelnikov won 27 tour-level titles, including seven Masters 1000s.
There wasn’t one man who served as a consistent foil for Kafelnikov. The Russian believes his generation was so saturated with talent, that there were many rivals to contend with.
“You take Marcelo Rios, Guga, Moya. Pete and Andre were dominating the Tour at the time,” Kafelnikov said. “To me, the whole field was a big competition. I played many great matches against Guga. Me and Marat didn’t play any big matches against each other, thank God. We both had about 20 guys who were great rivals for both of us.”
If you had to pick one rival for Kafelnikov, it might be Gustavo Kuerten. The Brazilian beat the Russian in three Roland Garros quarter-finals (1997, 2000-01), needing five sets in two of those matches. Kuerten lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires in each of those years. It wasn’t always the biggest stars who frustrated Kafelnikov, either. He never enjoyed playing Dominik Hrbaty (4-9) or Thomas Johansson (5-9).
“Dominik’s game was such a solid game that he had every answer to all my shots,” Kafelnikov said. “If I was hitting the ball hard, the ball was coming back twice as hard. That stuff was driving me nuts. Those two players [Hrbaty and Johansson] read my game so well.”
Overall Match Win-Loss Record: 609-306
Overall Titles/Finals Record: 26-20
The Russian maximised his all-around game and stellar fitness to compete — and in many cases, beat — the best players in the world. Kafelnikov’s strength was his backhand, especially up the line. His two-hander was one of the best of his generation.
“I was not even close to being as gifted as John McEnroe or Roger Federer or even Marat Safin, or Marcelo Rios or Nick Kyrgios,” Kafelnikov said. “I was never that gifted. But I was a really hard worker. I’m sure that because of that, I’ve got all my titles, all my goals.”
Besides his work ethic, Kafelnikov will be remembered for showing young Russians they could enjoy success on the ATP Tour. He was the first Russian Grand Slam singles champion and World No. 1. Today, three Russians are inside the Top 15 of the FedEx ATP Rankings.
“Yevgeny was the guy who really made it click for me that it was possible to become an unbelievable tennis player,” Safin told ATPTour.com. “Yevgeny achieved to be the elite in tennis, so for me that was the goal, it was like, ‘Wow’. To that point no Russian guy like him made it, so because of him I [knew] I had a chance.”
Kafelnikov does not consider one achievement from his career greater than the rest. Instead, he cherishes his Grand Slam victories, reaching World No. 1 and winning the singles gold medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
In familiar circumstances, Kafelnikov played Kuerten in a consequential quarter-final, defeating the Brazilian 6-4, 7-5. With gold on the line, the Russian battled hard to scrape past rising German Tommy Haas 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.
Marat Safin on Kafelnikov
“I learned a lot from him when I was younger, practising with him. I understood the intensity of the tennis ball, the way he played from the baseline and how close he stood to the line. For me it was the most shocking moment in my tennis understanding. It was due to him. I never told him, but I understood what it meant to take the ball early [because of Yevgeny]. It clicked and from that point I started to play better and better because of him.”
Larry Stefanki on Kafelnikov
"He was a workhorse, playing both singles and doubles most weeks. Yevgeny and competition merely went together. He always showed up to win. He loved the big matches and played his best tennis under the most extreme pressure. He absolutely cherished being under the gun to have to win a match."
Kafelnikov on Kafelnikov
"All my success came because I worked hard. That's how I will always be remembered."
Broadcaster/Journalist Graeme Agars
Strong and tall with a powerful and reliable baseline game, Yevgeny Kafelnikov was a handful for all those who had to face him across the net. The poker-faced Russian was also adept at volleying when he chose to be and that made him a difficult player to outmanoeuvre.
His no-fuss approach to the game didn’t make him a box office headliner like some of his peers, but his results spoke for themselves. He became the first Russian to win a Grand Slam title when he defeated Michael Stich at Roland Garros in 1996 and he added to his haul that same year by winning the doubles crown as well. In doing so, he remains the last player to win both the singles and doubles titles at the same Slam event, a record that will likely stand for a long time.
After retiring at the St. Petersburg Open in October 2003, the multi-talented Russian turned himself to a variety of different endeavors. He played successfully in the World Series of Poker, competed at the Russian Open, Austrian Open and Czech Masters on the European golf tour, and briefly coached fellow Russian Marat Safin.
When not engaging in those activities, he also had interests in fishing, watching football, baseball and ice hockey and spent two years playing on the ATP Champions Tour.