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Whatever happened to Yevgeny Kafelnikov?

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Originally published on: 26/02/10 14:57

Yevgeny Kafelnikov was once the fittest man in world tennis. It might sound like a lofty claim, but think about this: the Russian was the last male player to win the singles and doubles events at the same Grand Slam.

And of all the Slams to achieve the feat, Kafelnikov pulled it off on the gruelling terre battue of the clay courts of Roland Garros in 1996.

The former world No.1 had a reputation as one of the most committed players in the game, playing more matches each season than almost anyone else on the Tour.

He counts the 1999 Australian Open title and 2000 Olympic gold medal among his career haul of 26 singles and 27 doubles crowns, and prize-money of $25 million dollars.

Then, after nearly 1,500 matches over eleven years on the circuit, he quit.

“I just said ‘look, I can’t take it anymore’ and I decided to quit”

It was after a 6-2 6-2 loss to compatriot Mikhail Youzhny in St Petersburg in 2003 that Kafelnikov, then 29, stunned the tennis world with the shock announcement. He was not seen on a court again.

“Basically I burned out,” he explains. “I started to lose to players who would hardly win a game against me when I was at my best.

“I just said ‘look, I can’t take it anymore’ and that was when I really decided to quit.”

Over the next five years he turned his hand to the World Series of Poker – notching up some impressive finishes in 2005 – and European Tour golf – twice finishing twenty shots below the cut at the Russian Open in both 2005 and 2008.

He also ballooned in weight, tipping the scales at 120kg – 36kg heavier than he was in his prime.

“I put two photos together, one when I was playing and a recent one, and it was like looking at two different people. I said to myself: ‘You can’t do that to your body, it’s not going to last long if you do’.”

So this year, the 34-year-old decided the time had come to start looking after himself again – and what better way than to get back on a tennis court?

There were reports that Marat Safin had been putting his compatriot through his paces after the US Open, and rumours of a competitive return were confirmed when he made his debut at the BlackRock Tour of Champions in Eindhoven last week.

While the Russian’s exit from the game might have suggested otherwise, Kafelnikov admits that after retiring he soon began to miss the Tour.

“People want to see the guys who they idolised”

“As you get older and wiser you see life from a different angle and your perspective changes,” he said. “When I was playing on the tour I had quite an ego. I was there to win and it comes with the territory.”

But now, Kafelnikov is happy to enjoy his tennis – and treat it like a game rather than a chore.

“That’s why I’m here – people want to see me because I was once the No.1 in the world and won Grand Slam titles. People want to see the guys who they idolised.”

That being said, it was no fairytale return to competition. He lost all three of his round-robin matches against Michael Chang, Paul Haarhuis and Goran Ivanisevic.

But his fitness is returning – he has already lost 15 kilos over the past six months.

“Slowly, I am getting into better shape and hopefully if I get more opportunities to play next year, I will perform better.”

With Kafelnikov’s work ethic and a new-found passion for the game, few would bet against him making an impact soon.

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