Youzhny learning to live with Davis Cup fame

Mikhail Youzhny needed just one match to become an instant national hero after he clinched Russia's first Davis Cup title with a dramatic 3-2 victory over holder France in the Paris final.

It takes some athletes years to reach the pinnacle of their sporting careers. Others may never get there at all.

But Mikhail Youzhny needed just one match to become an instant national hero after he clinched Russia's first Davis Cup title with a dramatic 3-2 victory over holder France in the Paris final.

Last December, the little-known, 20-year-old Youzhny, playing as a late substitute for Yevgeny Kafelnikov, staged one of the most amazing comebacks in tennis history when he fought from two sets down to beat Paul-Henri Mathieu 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 in a decisive fifth rubber to swing the tie in Russia's favour.

He became the first player in the event's 102-year history to win a match in the final after losing the first two sets.

After his stunning victory, Youzhny was embraced by the entire nation. Former President Boris Yeltsin climbed out of his VIP seat on to the Bercy court to give him a bear hug and hundreds of fans greeted him on arrival at Sheremetyevo airport, Moscow in the wee hours of the following morning.

For the next few days, Youzhny was the toast of the town, making public appearances and giving numerous interviews, which he later described as both tiring and time-consuming.

Three months after his greatest sporting triumph, the player admits that he still feels far less confident in front of the cameras than he does on the tennis court.

"I'm getting used to the attention, although I still need some adjustment to be totally comfortable with the media," the soft-spoken Youzhny told Reuters in a recent interview.

But he quickly dismissed the notion that the Mathieu match was a make-or-break moment in his career.

"Yes, it was a very important match, probably the most important so far for me because I was playing for my country in the decisive fifth rubber of the Davis Cup final," he said.

"But I don't want people to remember me for only that match. I hope I still have a lot more important matches in my career. I hope this is just the beginning of a long road ahead."

Youzhny's coach, Boris Sobkin, agreed. "It may look good for the press to make it into a nice Cinderella story as someone coming from total obscurity and in a matter of a few hours making it to the top," Sobkin said.

"In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, the circumstances were dramatic but the two players were evenly matched, Misha was ranked even higher than Mathieu, so by no means should it be considered a big upset.

"You have to remember that he put in a lot of hard work before the final and it paid off in the end," the coach added.

Looking back, Youzhny said he allowed Mathieu to dominate him in the first two sets because he was making "too many simple mistakes."

"I was so embarrassed with my play in the first two sets that I just wanted to make a match out of it and kept telling myself during changeovers: `Fight, fight, fight'," he said.

Sobkin said that when Youzhny walked out for the Cup decider, he had not played a match since late October.

"Besides, Misha wasn't expected to play in Paris and was told to get ready just hours before the match," the coach said.

"It added extra pressure to the already tense atmosphere of the final, so it took a while for Misha to get into his rhythm but I had no doubt he was capable of turning the match around." Asked to describe the qualities of his pupil, Sobkin said that character was certainly one of them.

"Mikhail has grown up tremendously in the past 12 months," he said. "Certain circumstances, like the death of his father, added to his stature but he has matured into a fine young man." Youzhny's father died from a heart attack just 24 hours after Russia beat Argentina 3-2 in a Davis Cup semi-final last September.

After the final, Youzhny said he was dedicating the victory to his father.

His character was on full display during Russia's first-round tie of the 2003 Davis Cup against the Czech Republic last month.

With Russian number one Marat Safin sidelined by a wrist injury and Kafelnikov in poor form, Youzhny was entrusted with leading the defending champions in Ostrava.

"If he has to play five-set matches for three straight days to help the team, he will," Sobkin said before Ostrava, quashing speculation that Youzhny was not ready for the lead role.

"He is a real fighter," Russian Davis Cup chief Shamil Tarpishchev said of Youzhny.

"Besides, his professional approach and detailed preparation should serve as a good example to all our Davis Cup players." Although he named no-one, Tarpishchev's comments were clearly aimed at his two big players, the highly talented but underachieving Safin and the often egotistic and moody Kafelnikov.

Youzhny learned his trade at an early age when he followed his older brother Andrei to clay courts at the Spartak tennis school in Moscow which also groomed Safin and Anna Kournikova.

"I first picked up a tennis racquet when I was four or five and by the age of six I was in serious training," said Youzhny.

Sobkin, who has trained Youzhny since 1993, says his protege compares well with other up-and-coming players on the men's tour.

"Take Andy Roddick for example. He has a built-in edge over Youzhny because Andy is American and Misha is Russian," Sobkin said. "While there are many tournaments in the U.S., Russia has only two, one in Moscow and in St Petersburg, and playing at home is always a big help in terms of scheduling, climate, etc." Roddick, 20, has won five titles in his career, all on American soil, while Youzhny claimed a single ATP trophy last year in Stuttgart.

The Russian, however, enjoys a 2-1 edge in head-to-head meetings with the American, although Roddick prevailed in their last encounter in January in the Australian Open fourth round.

"Andy has a big serve and more raw power but in my view Misha has a more versatile game," Sobkin said. But the modest Youzhny wants to avoid comparison with anybody. "On the court I just want to be myself and play to my full potential," he said. "That's what my father wanted when he first introduced me to the game and that's good enough for me."