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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

2nd Favorite Kafelnikov Sails Into 3rd Round




NEW YORK -- Yevgeny Kafelnikov, suddenly elevated to second favorite to win the U.S. Open, played up to his heightened expectations Wednesday night.


Facing 22-year-old Belarussian Max Mirny and a hostile night crowd looking for an upset, Kafelnikov produced an impressive 7-5, 6-1, 6-7, 6-3 victory to cruise into the third round.


The third seed, named behind Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and two-time defending champion Patrick Rafter on most lists of pre-tournament favorites, awoke Wednesday to find himself as No. 2 after Sampras and Rafter were lost to injuries.


"It's always a little bit of a relief when the favorite's gone out of the tournament for whatever reason," said the Russian, who will battle Agassi for Sampras' No. 1 ranking as well as a place in the final if form holds the rest of the way.


Under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Kafelnikov unleashed some of the best ground strokes in the business to counter the rocket serve of the towering Mirny, who got into the draw as a lucky loser and played like he had nothing to lose.


Mirny, who won last year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open mixed doubles titles with Serena Williams, came back from two sets down to win his first round match. But Kafelnikov is no Thomas Zib.


Still, Mirny put up quite a fight, much to the delight of those who stuck around, chanting "C'mon Max" at every opportunity. "The way the first two sets were going, I though it was going to be an easy day at the office," Kafelnikov admitted.


Kafelnikov faced just three break points in the two hour and 20 minute clash and saved them all. The only way Mirny was able to steal a set was by coming up with some big shots in the tie-break.


"He seemed to pick up his game towards the end of the third set and the crowd got behind him. He played some incredible shots," the Russian said.


The 1.92 meter Belarussian bombed in 17 aces, many in excess of 193 kilometers per hour. But he was never able to break through on the third seed's serve.


"The good thing was that I kept fighting," said the satisfied Russian, who will face Jonas Bjorkman in the third round after the Swede ousted Kenneth Carlsen of Denmark 5-7, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 in an evening clash in the old stadium.


The player who received immediate dividends from Sampras' withdrawal, big-hitting Russian teenager Marat Safin, nearly threw away his gift.


Kafelnikov's Davis Cup teammate was supposed to play world No. 1 Sampras in the first round but instead was handed lucky loser Mikael Tillstrom of Sweden, ranked 129 places below the 12-time Grand Slam champion.


Still the 31st-ranked Safin had to rebound from a disastrous fourth set to pull out a 6-2, 5-7, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 victory.


In that fourth set, the 19-year-old Russian put only an unthinkable 18 percent of his first serves in play.


"Disaster, I know," he said of the lapse.


"It's difficult to explain. I think it was a problem with concentration. ... It's not a problem with technique or throwing the ball, it's just from here," he said pointing to his head.