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While Safin continues to be mired in a funk that started about two weeks after he won the 2000 U.S. Open, Kafelnikov has been playing some of the best tennis of his career.
The crafty Kafelnikov celebrated his 27th birthday in style by capturing the ATP event in Marseille over the weekend. The second- seeded Sochi native ran the table in France, including big wins over quality players such as fellow veteran Cedric Pioline, Swiss sensation Roger Federer and Sebastien Grosjean, who gave way to the Russian, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2, in Sunday's sold out final. Grosjean, who hails from Marseille, was unable to prevail despite being the recipient of the expected noisy hometown support.
The capacity crowd, which included French soccer legend Jean Pierre Papin, sang Happy Birthday to Kafelnikov following his defeat of Grosjean.
"It is a very nice present, not only because it is my birthday but because this tournament holds a special place in my heart," Kafelnikov said after stopping Grosjean.
"It's a very special day today. It's my birthday, and I won this wonderful tournament. I've always wanted to win here."
Kafelnikov was the 1998 Marseille runner-up to aggressive Swede Thomas Enqvist.
Much to the chagrin of the French faithful, Kafelnikov took out four Frenchmen on his way to the title in Marseille. In the earlier rounds, the savvy Russian also dismissed Jerome Golmard and Nicolas Mahut.
Kafelnikov's first title of 2001 gave him his 23rd career championship, and pushed his season record to a sparkling 16-3. The Russian also improved to a perfect 3-0 against Grosjean -- a 2001 Australian Open semifinalist.
This year alone, Kafelnikov has done no worse than a quarterfinal appearance in all four of his tournaments.
A week before titling in Marseille, the powerful Russian reached the semis in Milan, where he was surprised by the upstart Federer in three sets. Kafelnikov avenged the setback to the 19-year-old Swiss by upending the talented teenager, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-4, in Marseille's round of four.
Kafelnikov was breezing right along at the year's first Grand Slam event -- last month's Australian Open -- before another upstart, Frenchman Arnaud Clement, stunned him in the quarterfinals in Melbourne. Clement, who prevented Kafelnikov from reaching his third Aussie Open final in as many years, advanced to the title match, where he succumbed to the great Andre Agassi. Kafelnikov lost to Agassi in the 1999 Down Under final.
The 6-3, 185-pound Kafelnikov would seem to be a serious candidate for the world No. 1 spot, which is currently held by Agassi. Kafelnikov's crown in Marseille bumped him up to No. 4 in the 2001 Champions Race, where he trails only Agassi, Clement and Grosjean.
The hard-working and steady Kafelnikov has won at least one title every year since 1994. Prior to his up-and-down 2000 campaign, the Russian, who turned pro in 1992, had secured at least three titles per year in six straight seasons (1994-99).
No stranger to huge victories, Kafelnikov's trophy case not only contains Olympic gold, but also features 1996 French and 1999 Aussie Open hardware. He's halfway there for corraling the coveted career Grand Slam, and three-fifths of the way there for securing the career Golden Slam.
Also a brilliant doubles performer, Kafelnikov has amassed 21 titles with a partner, giving him a combined 44 ATP championships and, more importantly, more than $18 million in career prize money.
If Safin can re-capture his mid-to-late-season form from a year ago, he and Kafelnikov will give Russia one of the most potent 1-2 combinations in the world, alongside Americans Agassi and Pete Sampras, Aussies Pat Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt, and Swedes Enqvist and Magnus Norman.
The former world No. 1, albeit only for six weeks in 1999, Kafelnikov may be headed that lofty perch once again if he can continue to sustain the hot play that kicked in at Melbourne Park last September.
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