Kafelnikov proves them wrong
Just three weeks ago Yevgeny Kafelnikov was not even sure he should be playing in the Olympic tennis tournament, never mind winning it.
"I was thinking it's probably not worth it for me to come here the way I was playing then," Kafelnikov said in Sydney on Thursday after winning Olympic gold.
Now, after beating Germany's Tommy Haas in a hard-fought final 7-6, 3-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, he reflected on his mood in early September after losing to Slovakia's Dominik Hrbaty in straight sets in the third round of the U.S. Open.
"I was really down on myself after that loss and had all kind of thoughts but I had never said to anyone that I'm pulling out."
Nevertheless, his words in New York were interpreted quite differently in Moscow, bringing a storm of criticism back home from Russian Olympic chief Vitaly Smirnov as well as the media.
"You can make millions of dollars or commute in a private jet but when it comes to giving your best for your country, he takes a back seat to many of our true sports heroes," Smirnov said when he thought Kafelnikov was pulling out of the Olympics.
On Thursday Kafelnikov was being hailed as a national hero for winning Russia's first ever Olympic gold medal in tennis.
"This medal means so much to me, it would have been a real tragedy for me if I had lost this match," the 26-year-old Sochi native told a packed post-match news conference, fondly holding his Olympic hardware.
"Before the tournament I said that I would trade all my other titles, except the two Grand Slams, for it, but now I don't have to. I can keep all my titles as well as the gold medal."
Kafelnikov said he did not come here thinking about medals.
"Before the tournament I thought that I wasn't going to even challenge for any medals," he said.
"I was just hoping to participate in the Olympics, just to have the record of competing here. And to win the gold medal is beyond all my expectations.
"I'm really, really proud of myself, I'm really proud of my country. To have won two Grand Slams plus the Olympic gold -- it means my career is not going to be forgotten in my country."
Kafelnikov also said that Russia is taking over in tennis.
"It has been a very sensational year for Russian tennis," he said.
"Marat Safin winning the U.S. Open, playing well, winning a big number of tournaments, plus on top of that I won the Olympic gold -- tennis fans in Russia can't wish anything more than we already accomplished.
"And Elena Dementieva winning a silver medal here also made women's tennis come to the top of the game together with the men's. That makes tennis a very special sport in our country."
Kafelnikov said bad feelings with some of Russia's sports officials are all but forgotten by now.
"I really enjoyed my time here, staying in the Olympic village with the rest of our athletes," he said.
"And tonight I'm going to the Superdome to cheer our team as they take on the U.S. in basketball."
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