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Rookie Mathieu to open vs Safin

Paris: Paul-Henri Mathieu, virtually unknown two months ago, makes his Davis Cup debut for champions France in the final against Russia on Friday, inflicting a second year of heartbreak on teammate Arnaud Clement.

The 20-year-old Mathieu will face world No. 3 Marat Safin in the opening singles. Their only previous meeting was in the Kremlin Cup semi-finals last month when Mathieu won 7-6, 6-4 on the way to his maiden ATP title. “It is like a dream come true,” said Mathieu.

The Frenchman’s previous Davis Cup experience was only as hitting partner before September’s semi-final against the United States. He was not even named in the official four-man squad for this weekend’s final.

“I’m very excited — taking risks is part of my game and I played the best match of my life against him (Safin).”

French No. 1 Sebastien Grosjean will tackle Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the second singles. The 28-year-old Russian has vowed to retire if he can guide the favourites to their first title after losing finals in 1994 and 1995.

Clement was also dropped at the last minute for last year’s final against Australia in Melbourne which France won 3-2 in a major shock.

Clement, who beat Andy Roddick in the opening singles of this year’s semi-final, has been suffering from tendinitis and captain Guy Forget was not confident he could last the weekend.

“Over the last two or three days Arnaud has had problems with his wrist and Paul-Henri has been close to his best,” Forget told a news conference. “Arnaud was honest enough to admit he wasn’t on top form and in a match like this 80 or 90 percent is not good enough. It was more sensible for the team to play Paul-Henri.”

Nicolas Escude and Fabrice Santoro play Kafelnikov and Safin in Saturday’s doubles on the clay court at the indoor Bercy Stadium before the reverse singles on Sunday.

Forget denied that asking a young player to make his debut in front of 15,000 compatriots in the final was a gamble, but the Russian camp believed the pressure could get to Mathieu.

“I often take chances but this is not a chance, it is a choice. Choice does not imply luck,” said Forget, bidding for France’s 10th title in their third final in four years.

“It is like when I chose Escude to play on grass in last year’s final. It is the obvious choice — I didn’t just toss a coin and see which side it fell.”

Mathieu won the Moscow and Lyon titles on carpet last month but first showed his potential in the claycourt French Open this year when he reached the last 16 before losing to Andre Agassi in five sets.

Safin, US Open champion in 2000, admitted the young Frenchman had surprised him with his shot-making in his Moscow defeat but he doubted whether Mathieu would dare repeat such tactics on Friday.

“This is a team match the burden of pressure is on Mathieu’s shoulders,” said the 22-year-old.

“I cannot believe he will play as risky tennis as he did in Moscow.”

Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin is travelling to Paris to support his team while French President Jacques Chirac will also be present.

Kafelnikov is looking forward to what could be the crowning glory of a career that has earned him two Grand Slam titles, an Olympic gold medal and $22 million in prize money.

“This is a special occasion. It would be a great accomplishment to win such a competition, not just for me but for my country,” he said. “The pressure is on the French team — they are the defending champions and playing in front of their home crowd.

“Marat and I are used to this sort of situation and we know how to handle it. It will all come down to which team is mentally the stronger.”

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