May 3rd 1999 : The day Yevgeny Kafelnikov surprisingly became world number one

Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to relive a tennis event which happened on this specific day. On May 3rd 1999, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, aged 25, became the first Russian to be world number one in tennis history.

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What happened exactly on that day and why it is memorable in tennis history

On the 3rd of May, 1999, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, aged 25, became the first Russian to be world number one in tennis history, knocking over American Pete Sampras. It was a big surprise for the general public, who didn’t necessarily know how the ATP ranking worked, as “Kalashnikov” was going through one of the lowest moments of his career after losing 7 matches in a row.

The guys involved

Yevgeny Kafelnikov was born in 1974 in Sochi (USSR, now in Russia), on the Black Sea coast. He turned pro in 1992 and claimed his first world-class results in 1994, reaching the semi-final in Monte-Carlo. He gained the nickname “the Stakhanovist”, as he was playing a lot more than most of the top players : he played in over 100 singles matches during a season three times during his career, while often competing in doubles. It also described him well as a tennis player, as he said in his speech at his Hall of Fame introduction in 2019 :

“I was not even close to being as gifted as John McEnroe or Roger Federer or even Marat Safin, or Marcelo Rios or Nick Kyrgios, I was never that gifted. But I was a really hard worker.”

Yevgeny Kafelnikov - Hall of Fame

In 1996, Kafelnikov became the first of his country to win a major title at Roland-Garros, defeating Michael Stich from Germany in the final (7-6, 7-5, 7-6). That year he also achieved a feat no one had achieved since Ken Rosewall in 1968, winning also the doubles event, alongside Daniel Vacek from Czechoslovakia, beating Guy Forget and Jakob Hlasek (6-2, 6-3).

Three years later, in January 1999, the Russian claimed a second Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, beating Thomas Enqvist in the final (4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-6). 

The place

On that day, Yevgeny Kafelnikov was in between two tournaments : he had just lost in Prague, and was expected to play in Rome the following week.

The facts

Kafelnikov had started 1999 ranked only no.11 in the world, and it was not expected at all that just several weeks later, he would compete to be no.1. The circumstances were peculiar indeed : the Russian triumphed at the Australian Open, in the absence of no.1 Pete Sampras and no.2 Marcelo Rios. Sampras, who had been dominating the tour since 1993, was exhausted after a 1998 marathon to finish the year for the sixth time in row as world no.1, and played only four tournaments until May. There was no other real leader on the tour at that time, so three players contended for the top seat : Patrick Rafter (US Open champion in 1997 and 1998), Carlos Moya (Roland-Garros champion in 1998), and Yevgeny Kafelnikov after he claimed the title in Melbourne Park. In March, Moya had been the first to get to the top,  for only two weeks. Interestingly, none of the contenders were in a good shape at the time and the situation evolved without much connection to their latest results, making it quite confusing for anyone not knowing very well how the ATP ranking was calculated.

And so it was that “Kafel” became world number one on the 3rd of May, although he had just lost in the first round in Prague against Richard Fromberg, ranked only 72 (6-4, 2-6, 6-4). But not only did he lose in Prague. The Russian was actually on his worst losing strike of six first-round losses in a row, which started in Indian Wells against Gustavo Kuerten, and culminated in Monte-Carlo where he was defeated 6-1, 6-2 in only fourty-four minutes by world no.196 Croatian Ivan Ljubicic! Not exactly the results generally expected from a world no.1.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov - Russia

Despite the awkward circumstances, it was a huge achievement for Kafelnikov, the first Russian player to ever sit on top of the ATP ranking. The next day, on the 4th of May, he even received a telegram from Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation and famous tennis enthusiast : “For the first time in the 122-year history of tennis, a Russian sportsman has become the world’s top player. The victory is a great achievement for our sport. As a person who plays tennis, I understand how difficult it is to achieve such a result.”.

“It was one of my main goals I wanted to accomplish during my career along with winning Grand Slam titles. Being No. 1 was something special and was the pinnacle of my career,” Kafelnikov told ATPWorldTour in 2013.

What next 

Although his losing strike would end in his following tournament in Rome, Yevgeny Kafelnikov did not perform very well during the six weeks in which he had been number one. He lost in the second round at the French Open against Dominik Hrbaty (6-4, 6-1, 6-4), for his only Grand Slam appearance as seed no.1. Ironically enough, he would start performing again during the summer, after losing the top spot never to reclaim it, reaching the semi-finals at the US Open, defeated by Andre Agassi (1-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3). He would finish the season as world no.2.

Kafelnikov would win seven more titles by the end of the career, including Olympic gold medal in Sydney. He would remain a top tennis until 2002. That year, he would also be part of the Russian team who won the Davis Cup final against France.

His last appearance on the tour would be in 2003, at the Saint Petersburg Open, where he lost in the second round against fellow Russian player Mikhail Youzhny (6-2, 6-2). He then retired and pursued other passions, amongst which included playing golf and poker.

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