| Safin (left) & Kafelnikov: A potent duo
London: A country can win the Davis Cup with one great player as Bjorn Borg proved in the 1970s and Boris Becker underlined in the 1980s.
With two, a team should be all but unbeatable as Russia hope to demonstrate in next week’s final against France.
Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the greatest player produced by Russia, has single-handedly carried his country’s hopes for nigh on a decade and took his team into the 1994 and 1995 finals.
Both times he fell short, first against a Swedish side powered by Stefan Edberg and Magnus Larsson and the following year in the face of Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Todd Martin.
This year, however, the former world number one is no longer alone. Marat Safin is helping him to shoulder the singles burden and the two form a dangerous doubles partnership.
Crucially, they are potent on every surface including the indoor clay chosen for the final in Paris starting next Friday.
Kafelnikov became the first Russian to win a Grand Slam when he took the French Open claycourt crown in 1996. Now 28, he has vowed to retire if the Davis Cup is Russia’s next weekend.
“I have said several times that I want to retire at the end of the year,” he said. “So far it has been my worst season ever. But if we win the Cup it will definitely make up for all the disappointments.”
Safin, the 2000 US Open champion, reached the semi-finals of the French Open this year and won the Paris Masters indoor title at Bercy this month, beating world number one Lleyton Hewitt on carpet.
The 22-year-old Safin says the decision to play the final on clay, taken by France after they beat the United States at Roland Garros in the semi-finals, is a fatal mistake for the hosts.
But the French believe their home crowd, superb team spirit and number one singles player Sebastien Grosjean will be enough to seal a second successive title against the odds.
Last year France completed one of the great upset wins in Davis Cup history when they travelled to Melbourne to face Hewitt and Pat Rafter on grass, and grabbed a 3-2 victory.
Grosjean lost both singles in that tie but on clay he has been defeated just once in seven Davis Cup matches and he beat Americans Andy Roddick and James Blake in the semi-final.
The number two singles spot probably lies between Arnaud Clement, who beat Roddick in the opening singles of the semi-final, and Paul-Henri Mathieu, the in-form French player who won two singles titles in October.
Mathieu, yet to play a Cup match, has been named only as a reserve but can be brought in at the last minute under the competition’s rules. Fabrice Santoro and Nicolas Escude will almost certainly play the doubles on the Saturday.
Man for man, France are clearly second best as captain Guy Forget acknowledges. “I sincerely believe that the Russians are better than us, on any surface,” he said.
“We have to keep in mind that we will beat the Russians if we are opportunist, ambitious and aggressive.”
The hosts will be playing in their third final in four years and, for the first time since the 1930s, in their second successive final.
France won the Davis Cup from 1927 to 1933 — the last time the final was held in Paris —thanks to Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet, Rene Lacoste and Jacques Brugnon.
The present team try to avoid direct comparisons with their illustrious predecessors.
“The age of the musketeers is a long time ago,” said Grosjean. “In those days they went straight into the final.”
France have been champions nine times since making their debut in 1904 while Russia first entered the competition only in 1962. The two countries have played three times before, the last in 1983, with France leading 2-1.