ATP Heritage: Kafelnikov's Rise To No. 1
Kafelnikov broke new ground for Russian tennis.
Yevgeny Kafelnikov paved the way for tennis players in Russia and this Friday marks the anniversary of one of his most significant accomplishments. Fourteen years ago, he became the first player from his country to ascend to World No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings.
Kafelnikov began the 1999 season ranked outside the Top 10, but in winning his first Australian Open title and second Grand Slam singles crown, the Russian workhorse rose to No. 3. On 3 May, Kafelnikov overtook Pete Sampras for the top spot, a position he would hold for six weeks, which included being the No. 1-ranked player at Roland Garros.
“It was one of my main goals I wanted to accomplish during my career along with winning Grand Slam titles. Being No. 1 was something special and was the pinnacle of my career,” Kafelnikov tells ATPWorldTour.com. “It took a lot of effort to accomplish it mentally and physically. I had a goal and was driven by it and at the end it all came together.”
The Sochi native was the 16th player to reach No. 1 and to date, is the fifth oldest to achieve the feat at 25 years, two months. Later in 1999, Kafelnikov posted his highest year-end finish at No. 2, which came during his run of five year-end Top 5 finishes over a six-year period.
In addition to owning the tag as Russia’s first World No. 1, Kafelinkov broke new ground for his country several times during his 11-year career on the ATP World Tour. Among these firsts, Kafelinikov qualified for seven successive year-end championships, beginning in 1995; won the gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics; led Russia to the Davis Cup title in 2002; and won the singles and doubles titles at Roland Garros in 1996, a feat that hasn't been achieved at a Grand Slam event since.
“I don’t see anybody repeating that in quite a while, whether it’s Roland Garros, Wimbledon or the other Slams,” Kafelinkov stated on his twin titles at Roland Garros. “The top guys don’t play doubles during the Grand Slams. Playing doubles really helped develop my game and you get to work on volleys and how to return serve.”
Kafelnikov is the last player and eighth in the Open Era to win at least 25 titles in both singles (26) and doubles (27). He played in over 100 singles matches during a season three times and notched 609 match wins (tied for 18th all-time with Rafael Nadal). Kafelnikov also won the Kremlin Cup in Moscow five straight times from 1997-2001. On the doubles court, he captured four major titles and climbed to No. 4 in the Emirates ATP Doubles Rankings.
In reflecting on his greatest accomplishment, Kafelnikov determined it was impossible to single out one. “It’s a million dollar question and I can’t put one above the other. Being No. 1, winning Grand Slam titles, the Olympic gold medal and Davis Cup, they all mean so much to me. They are all together.”