Safin gives Russia 1-0 lead over France

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src='' class='caption'> Marat Safin gave Russia a 1-0 lead over defending champion France in the Davis Cup final on Friday by beating feisty French newcomer Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-4, 3-6

Updated: February 25, 2007 09:28 IST
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Marat Safin gave Russia a 1-0 lead over defending champion France in the Davis Cup final on Friday by beating feisty French newcomer Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. Safin, who is seeking Russia's first ever Davis Cup title, closed out the opening match in the best-of-five tie with his 19th ace. France's top-ranked player, Sebastien Grosjean, was to face two-time Grand Slam winner Yevgeny Kafelnikov in Friday's second singles match on Bercy's indoor clay court. Mathieu, 20, was playing his first ever Davis Cup match, watched by an audience of some 14,500 that included French President Jacques Chirac and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who sat next to each other. Mathieu won a spot in the French team when the more experienced Arnaud Clement said he was unable to play at his best level because of wrist tendinitis. Mathieu had beaten Safin in straight sets in their only previous match, at the semifinals of last month's Kremlin Cup, which he won for his fist career title. But he hadn't played another competition since winning at Lyon a week later because of an abdominal muscle injury. Picking Mathieu to play singles was a risky gamble for French captain Guy Forget, but early on it seemed to be paying off. Tough match The Nick Bollettierri-trained Frenchman set up two break points against Safin in the fourth game of the opening set, both of which Safin survived. Serving at 3-3, Mathieu dramatically saved a break point by wrong-footing the former US Open champion with a crosscourt backhand. The 1.93-meter (6-ft-4) Russian fell face down on the clay as the racket shot out of his right hand. But Safin won the game two points later and sealed the set with another ace. A set down, Mathieu was far from out. Punching home forehands and backhands, the Frenchman took a 3-0 lead as Safin's fragile composure cracked. In a typical display of frustration, Safin shut his eyes, cocked his head and put both hands on his hips after hitting a backhand wide in the final game of the set, which he conceded by sending another backhand into the net. Nailbiting finish Then came Mathieu's turn to collapse. He lost five straight games before recovering to hold serve at love and trail 1-5. Guy Forget bit his nails court-side as Mathieu set up two break points in the seventh game. Safin saved them with an ace and a service winner, and took the set with an easy forehand winner. In the fourth set, Safin displayed the classy tennis with which he won the 2000 US Open and briefly claimed the No 1 spot in the world rankings. He broke Mathieu in the seventh game with a series of sumptuous drop shots, capped with a forehand that he drilled down the line. His gold necklace glistening under the indoor lights, Safin set up a first match point with a service winner at 205 kph (127 mph), drawing gleeful smiles from Yeltsin and an anxious look from Chirac. Safin double faulted and Mathieu won the next point with a stunning forehand passing shot, then broke serve with a backhand down the line. Yeltsin's grin was replaced by a frown. The Russian former leader continued to scowl as Mathieu held serve to trail 4-5. Safin fell behind 15-30 in the last game after hitting a forehand at least a meter (yard) long, but won the next three points to seal victory on his second match point. McEnroe record stands Friday's defeat meant John McEnroe remains the only player ever to have made his Davis Cup singles debut in the final and won his match. That was in the 1978 final against Britain, which the United States won 4-1. Before Mathieu, the last newcomer to debut in a Davis Cup final was Pete Sampras, who lost to Henri Leconte in 1991 as France defeated the United States 3-1. France is seeking back-to-back titles for the first time since 1932, when the French foursome known as the Musketeers took its sixth straight title. They lost to Britain in the following year's final, which was the last time the Davis Cup final took place in Paris. France has nine Davis Cup titles overall and is unbeaten in eight straight ties stretching back more than two years. The Russian team is playing in its third final. Kafelnikov played in both, in 1994 and 1995. Safin and Kafelnikov were to play Nicolas Escude and Fabrice Santoro in Saturday's doubles match. In the reverse singles on Sunday, Grosjean will open against Safin and Mathieu will play Kafelnikov in the final match. (AP)

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