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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Tennis Builds Promise

PARIS -- From ball boy to Davis Cup final hero, Mikhail Youzhny has the talent and courage to build a Russian superpower in men's tennis.

Twice in the 1990s Russia lost Davis Cup finals, relying too heavily on the talents of one man, Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

But in winning its first title in Paris, Russia has discovered a talent to stand alongside Marat Safin who, at 22, has already been world No. 1 and U.S. Open champion.

Youzhny's heroics capped a torrid six months for the Muscovite. He won his first ATP title in July before suffering a worrying back injury. Then in September his father died just two days after Russia beat Argentina in the Davis Cup semifinals.

Youzhny, watched by his family, had been beaten in the final singles of that tie.

Before Sunday's match with Mathieu he had won only one of his five Davis Cup matches and his courage in coming back from a seemingly hopeless position, coupled with one of the sweetest backhands on the tour, will make him a tough Cup proposition for the next decade.

"He surprised even himself," said Safin. "He showed that he's a real man, he's a Russian man. He knows how to fight, he knows how to come out of such a difficult situation."

Safin won both his singles with a pulverizing power game that, even on the clay of the Bercy stadium, was all but impossible to counter.

The French players complained of being "machine-gunned" during the doubles, and their No. 1 player, Sebastien Grosjean, was blown away during the first two sets of his defeat in Sunday's first singles.

Concentration is Safin's only problem but, with Youzhny's prowess on clay and Safin's ability to perform on any surface, Russia has probably the best all-round team in the competition.

"I think Safin and Youzhny were very strong mentally," French captain Guy Forget said. "It's more normal for Safin but it's more surprising with Youzhny because he's young and he showed enormous mental qualities.

"Both of them were very strong in different aspects."

Youzhny, a ball boy at the 1995 final in Moscow, was brought in for the deciding match to replace Kafelnikov, who will announce this week whether he plans to retire from the game now Russia is champion.

Team spirit has been the basis of France's success -- the champions were in their third final in four years -- and in Mathieu they have found a "pearl," as Forget calls him.

But the injury to Arnaud Clement on the eve of the tie undoubtedly weakened the French line-up. Mathieu, who seems to have modeled his game and histrionics on world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, hit the ball with panache when ahead but, as the match moved away from him, he did not know how to react.

"This loss doesn't change the relationship we have together," Forget said. "That is going to help us overcome this loss and to start again next year with the same belief and the same motivation."

France travels to Romania in next year's first round while Russia goes to the Czech Republic. Other possible finalists in 2003 are Australia, led by Hewitt, and clay-court specialists Spain and Argentina.

But, after the final act of men's tennis in 2002, Safin just wants to enjoy this moment of victory.

"I'm so happy, I cannot describe what I'm feeling right now. It's just so great -- better than sex, you can say."