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Russia stun France for maiden title

Paris: Russia won the Davis Cup for the first time on Sunday after 20-year-old Mikhail Youzhny, a late substitute in the deciding singles, staged an astonishing comeback to beat Paul-Henri Mathieu 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.

In a showdown between two of the most inexperienced players ever to feature in the title-match, Youzhny recovered his nerve after two dreadful sets to claw his way back into the match, dousing Mathieu’s fire and the passion of the Parisian crowd.

Youzhny, a ballboy the last time his country appeared in a final in 1995, was brought in by Russian coach Shamil Tarpischev to replace former world number one Yevgeny Kafelnikov in a risky gamble which proved a masterstroke.

Not since 1964 has a team come back from 2-1 down in a final to win the title and Youzhny, like Mathieu aged 20, is the first player to come from two sets down in the final singles to win the Davis Cup.

Tarpischev did not believe Kafelnikov, who was thrashed in the opening singles and defeated with Marat Safin in Saturday’s doubles, was in the right physical or mental state of mind to play the decider.

In Sunday's first reverse singles, Safin battered Sebastien Grosjean into a 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 submission to level the tie at 2-2.

An exhausted Safin kept Russia’s Cup hopes alive by winning a thrilling third set tiebreak 13-11.

Safin’s thunderous first serve and powerful hitting on both wings overwhelmed Grosjean in the battle of the number ones.

The Frenchman managed to match the giant Russian only in the third set when, with Safin visibly tiring after three long matches in three days, they fought out a thrilling tiebreak offering Safin three match points and Grosjean four set points.

“It was a great match — I love playing in Paris, there is a fantastic atmosphere,” said Safin, who won the Paris Masters in the same Bercy stadium earlier this month. Of course I feel tired but I didn’t really have any option (but to play). The final singles will be a lottery, a game between two juniors. There will be lots of tension.”

Grosjean said: “For two sets he was playing like a god and was at the very top of his form but I didn't back down.”

Safin, 16 cm taller than his French opponent, opened up with heavy forehands and crashing first serves from the first point on the clay surface to break Grosjean immediately.

The 22-year-old from Moscow, encouraged by a fist-pumping Boris Yeltsin, showed a particular appetite for Grosjean’s second serve and he won the set on his third set point after breaking the French again in the ninth game.

The second set initially followed a similar script with Safin, a semi-finalist at the claycourt French Open this year, breaking Grosjean’s serve in the fourth game by pressuring his second serve and keeping him scampering along the baseline. But Grosjean broke back immediately after Safin netted a simple volley winner at the net and then offered up a poor second serve on break point.

Joy among the 14,000 French fans was short-lived, however. A string of unforced errors from Grosjean gave Safin a 4-2 lead and two games later the home favourite’s serve was broken again to put Russia firmly in command of the fourth singles.

Grosjean saved three breakpoints on his serve in the second game before taking a 2-1 lead as Safin’s serve began to show wear and tear, perhaps caused by tiredness — the Russian had played nine sets of tennis on the first two days. But, going for his shots and still hitting with enormous power, Safin broke back immediately. Two more breaks of service followed and Grosjean was forced to serve to save the match at 5-4.

At 30-15 a Grosjean drop shot appeared to be out but was given in and Safin picked up a warning from the umpire for his vociferous complaints.

The tie-break was a nerve-tingling affair for both teams as first Grosjean earned three set points in a row before Safin forced his first match point with a sharp volley on the line.

The Frenchman saved that one with a backhand volley and saved another at 11-10, before Safin finally claimed victory after three hours five minutes. (Reuters)

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