Johansson stages comeback, edges frustrated Kafelnikov in final
by Ed Toombs
Sunday, Aug. 8, 1999
Thomas Johansson (11) def. Yevgeny Kafelnikov (3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-3
Previous head to head: Kafelnikov leads 4-3 (Johansson won the last two)
Thomas Johansson bounced back from a horrible start and survived a somewhat controversial groin injury to break Yevgeny Kafelnikov's serve six times and win the duMarier Open singles final today, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.
The final was a battle of baseliners, somewhat surprising given the fact that the courts this week played very fast. It was Johansson's third straight win over Kafelnikov, his first title of the season and the most important win of his career. Kafelnikov has won the French and Australian Opens, but is still looking for his first Super Nine title in four finals.
First set: all Yevgeny
Kafelnikov said after his semifinal win that the beginning of the match would be key, and he started flawlessly. The big Russian held his opening game easily, but this was not the case for Johansson, who was broken in the second game of the match. The cadence of Kafelnikov's hard-hitting baseline, particularly from the forehand side, was causing a seemingly nervous Johansson major problems, just as it worried Agassi last night. The Swede could not match Yevgeny's pace, and was being rushed into numerous forehand errors. When Kafelnikov raced to a 3-0 lead, it looked like it might be a short afternoon.
Johansson finally held serve to get on the board to close to 1-3, and the crowd, or what there was of it, applauded. Many seats were not occupied for this final, although all tickets were sold. One assumes that many fans stayed away either because of the rain, or the fact that neither Agassi nor Rafter were in the final. Anyway, the encouragement was in vain, as Kafelnikov reestablished his authority to win the next three games and take the first set 6-1.
This set, which lasted just 26 minutes, was all Kafelnikov: he won 29 of 43 points and 85% of his first serves were in play. As for Johansson, he wasn't exactly "missing pretty much every second ball", as Kafelnikov put it, but he made far too many unforced errors in the set (13, including 10 on the forehand).
Second set: Johansson's backhand causes Kafelnikov consternation
The crowd was afraid this would be over early, and when Johansson held serve to start the second set the fans applauded heartily. But the Swede showed on the first point of the second game that he was not going to surrender without a fight. With Kafelnikov serving at 30-0 and apparently on the way to another easy hold, the Swede let loose a mighty backhand passing shot. It was Johansson's first clean winner, and to my mind was the turning point of the match, as it instilled some needed confidence in the Swede. From this point on, Johansson made six backhand winners, and kept Kafelnikov on his heels by hitting the backand hard and deep during their many baseline rallies. Johansson commented: "In the first set he had me on the run, so I tried to hit the ball deeper and harder to get him on the run. The backhand started working, especially up the line." Having made a statement with his backhand, Johansson came back in a long, four-deuce game to break Kafelnikov for the first time, and lead 2-0 in the second set. When Yevgeny finally conceded the break on a forehand error, he slammed a ball angrily to the ground in frustration.
Yevgeny showed many signs of anger and frustration in this match, even when he was in command of the score as he was at this stage. He is prone to this, and it only serves to give his opponent encouragement. "I love that," admitted Johansson after the match. "It's a sign that he's in a bad mood, and you can be even more focused then."
With Johansson leading 3-1, a succession of service breaks occurred. Kafelnikov broke to pull to 2-3, but Johansson rebroke to go to 4-2; Kafelnikov got another break to pull to 3-4, but Johansson returned the favour and went up 5-3. In fact there were 11 service breaks in the match, 6 by Johansson. Someone had to hold eventually, and it was Johansson, at a very opportune time. Serving for the set at 5-3, Johansson served out the set, but it wasn't easy. Suddenly hitting errant forehands as he did in the first set, Johansson fell behind 0-30. The Swede hit yet another forehand that seemed out, but it was called in. Kafelnikov dropped his racquet and argued, pointing to the spot where he thought it landed. On the next points Kafelnikov hit a forehand off the frame (he framed a total of six forehands in the final two sets); the shot went out, and it was 40-30, set point Johansson. Kafelnikov saved the first set point on a backhand winner, but then framed yet another forehand to set up a second set point for Johansson. This time Thomas netted a nervous forehand, and the usually emotionless Swede screamed, "ah-AHH"! But a service winner made possible a third set point, which Johansson converted with an ace to win the set 6-3 and level the match.
Third set: A controversial injury and a strange ending
Unlike many Super Nine finals which are best of five sets, the Canadian Open is a best of three, so the third set would decide the issue. By now most the crowd had decided to support the valiant Johansson, and urged him to complete his comeback.
After Kafelnikov held serve in the first game, Johansson called for the trainer, and went off to the locker room with him for a three minute injury time out. "I pulled a muscle in the right groin area," explained the Swede. "I hurt it at the end of the second set when I was running to my backhand. They taped it up well, and then I could run even better." Indeed, Johansson was remarkably spry after the injury time out. This convinced Kafelnikov that the whole thing was a ruse. "If you pull your hamstring you're not running like he did. He wasn't hurt, not at all. We are all players, and we understand such tricks." When told that Kafelnikov felt he wasn't injured, Johansson looked a bit startled, shook his head, and quickly fell back into his usual laid-back demeanor. "He sees things from his side, and I see things from my side. He's not able to judge if I'm injured or not. I know that I'm injured, and if you have pain you should call the trainer. I got some treatment just now, and will be getting more treatment tonight and tomorrow." An ATP spokesman told us the diagnosis was a "strained adductor".
When Johansson returned from his tape job, serving at 0-1 he immediately got into trouble, and faced yet another break point. But Yevgeny mis-hit another of those forehands off the frame, and Johansson saved the game with a service winner and an overpowering backhand.
Kafelnikov yielded the first break of the final set, when he was broken at love. Johansson took the first point with a big forehand winner, and then the Russian gave away the next three points (forehand error, double fault, forehand way long), and concluded by slamming the ball again in anger. Johansson held in the next game, which featured some great shotmaking (more potent TJ backhands, and a miraculous running YK forehand from outside the doubles alley), and the Swede held a 3-2 lead. As in the second set, however, the Swede had trouble holding on to his break, and Kafelnikov immediately broke back. It wasn't easy: Kafelnikov needed three break points, and received a warning from the umpire when he smashed a ball into the stands after Johansson struck a volley to save the second break point. But a backhand passing shot on the third chance did the trick, and we were even again at 3-3.
That was the last game Kafelnikov would win. Johansson again put Yevgeny's serve in danger in the seventh game. It was another long game. Finally, on the fourth deuce point Thomas set up a break point with one of the many forcing backhands he was hitting at this stage, and finished off the game with a flawless cross-court backhand.
Johansson held to go up 5-3, and the sun came out to say hello for the first time today. Kafelnikov now served to stay in the match. Johansson drew first blood in this game, as he connected yet again on a superbly angled backhand passing shot. "Kafel" dumped a backhand into the net, and it was 0-30. A backhand down the line winner pulled Yevgeny to 15-30, but a costly double fault made it 15-40, match point.
A strange match point it was. Kafelnikov served, but thought he heard a let. Johansson hit an unopposed return, while Yevgeny stood puzzled at the baseline. There was no call except for "jeu, set et match Johansson", and the Swede raced forward to shake hands with his victim (Kafelnikov did not shake hands with the umpire), raise his hands to the crowd, and bask in the most important win of his career. Make the final: 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, in 2 hours, 2 minutes.
Not surprisingly, the two combatants had different perspectives on why the tide turned so dramatically in Johansson's favour after the first set. Johansson: "In the second and third sets I played the best tennis in the whole tournament, maybe in my whole life. And I think after my injury he played safe shots to make me run, instead of hitting a winner." Kafelnikov: "I just got a little bit tight. In the second set he started to play more accurate, and I started feeling a little bit unconfident. But I player of my caliber shouldn't make such mistakes. Basically he did not win the match, I lost it."
They are both right, to a certain extent. Johansson did raise his play dramatically, and Kafelnikov seemed to panic and lose the confidence he had all week, particularly in his remarkable semifinal domination of Agassi.
Johansson and Kafelnikov now move on to Cincinnati for the second Super Nine in as many weeks. Johansson's controversial groin pull is a bit of a question mark -- "I'll receive treatment tonight and the whole day tomorrow. I'll hope for the best." Kafelnikov has been known in recent years for his back-breaking schedule, and despite suggestions earlier this year that he would cut back on his tournament committments he came here directly from several clay court tournaments and will play every week until the US Open. "I definitely have to consistently practice and play matches. I'll play at Cincinnati, Washington and Long Island." The Russian can console himself with a move to number two in next week's rankings, ahead of Agassi and Rafter and just behind Sampras.
Finally, the man holding the trophy at the end of the week was not Agassi or Rafter, the fan favourites. Nor was it Kafelnikov, who utterly dominated the fancied Agassi in the semifinal and was the heavy favourite today. Rather, it was the a quiet outsider with a big backhand from Sweden. Johansson now moves into the top 20, and should appear at the 17 spot in Monday's rankings. It will be interesting to see if he can follow this up with successes in the Grand Slams, where he has never been past the quarterfinals.
There's that cheque, too: $360,000, the biggest prize of his career. What will he do with it? "Pay my coach", said the happy Johansson with a chuckle.