Marat Safin drew first blood for Russia in the Davis Cup final here Friday, beating untried Paul-Henri Mathieu of France 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 -- but the lead didn't last long as Sebastien Grosjean hit back to level by thrashing an insipid Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
Grosjean has a debt to pay, having lost both his singles rubbers in last year's French final win over Australia.
And he went a long way to doing so after bludgeoning Kafelnikov 7-6 (7/3), 6-3, 6-0 in two hours and six minutes.
The final was poised on a knife-edge ahead of yesterday's traditionally crucial doubles where Nicolas Escude and Fabrice Santoro will bid to outwit Kafelnikov and Safin.
Since 1978, the team which has won the doubles has gone on to lift the huge trophy -- which stands 110cm tall after having an additional layer added this year to provide space for future winners' names.
French skipper Guy Forget had gambled by sending 20-year-old Mathieu into his first ever Davis Cup match knowing that US legend John McEnroe is the only man ever to have made a winning debut in the competition at the final stage.
An unsuccessful US final debutant was Pete Sampras, Forget beating him on the way to a French victory in Lyon in 1991.
However despite the setback to Mathieu, Forget ended his day feeling optimistic.
"I am pretty happy with today's scenario," said Forget.
"I wouldn't have liked to go into the doubles 2-0 down and now the doubles should prove crucial -- but Sunday will be the day that decides everything," said Forget, who plumped for Mathieu in place of wrist tendinitis victim Arnaud Clement.
Mathieu gave his all against Safin -- but his lack of experience told, even if the Russian had kind words for his rival.
"He played well. I knew I had to not let him play his game. When he controls a match, he's dangerous," Safin acknowledged -- having lost the pair's only previous meeting in the Kremlin Cup semi-final in his native Moscow in early October.
"To play on clay after a long season on hardcourt against Mathieu in France means I'm in good shape," said Safin, who took his singles record in the event to 10 wins for 10 defeats.
Mathieu had not played since winning Lyon on October 13, an abdominal strain keeping him away from competition until Friday.
"I think Sunday against Kafelnikov will be better as I will have a match behind me," the young star predicted.
Safin won in 3hr 08min, saving 12 of 14 break chances against his own. He won on his second match point with his 19th ace -- after double-faulting on his first -- something he blamed on rushing to the finishing post.
"I was rushing a little bit too much. I wanted to get out of the court," he explained.
Kafelnikov, who says he may retire if he can help Russia win the Cup for the first time, failed miserably to carry on Safin's good work after Grosjean motored past him following a tight first set which went to the tiebreak.
Thereafter the 28-year-old's game deserted him as he began to multiply unforced errors.
"It was basically one-way traffic. I was unable to keep up in the second and third sets," said the Russian, who faces surgery to remove a varicose vein tomorrow in Zurich.
"Unfortunately I made too many mistakes."
In all he produced 43 unforced errors to 30 for his rival. He lost the ace count 0-13 and the outright winner statistics read 40-19 in Grosjean's favor.
Grosjean had lost three of the pair's five previous encounters.
But the Florida-based Frenchman had won their last two meetings -- including the Paris indoor Masters Series final here last year -- and he raced through on this occasion with ease.
"The first two sets were pretty close -- but then I ran away with it," said Grosjean.
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