Was Kafelnikov actually unlucky?

buscemi

Hall of Fame
The traditional narrative was that Kafelnikov was lucky b/c his two Majors wins were (1) the 1996 French Open, when he faced fast court players in the money rounds; and (2) the 1999 Australian Open, where he famously thanked Sampras for not showing up.

On the other hand, it looks to me like he was pretty unlucky. Let's go by Major (other than Wimbledon, where I don't think he had a shot at winning, despite his Halle titles).

Australian Open:
1994: loses to eventual champion Sampras in the 2nd round 9-7 in the fifth set
1995: loses to eventual champion Agassi in the QF
1996: loses to eventual champion Becker in the QF
1997: injured
1998: injured (was 6-2 against finalist Rios and 7-2 against champion Korda)
1999: wins
2000: loses to Agassi in the final

So, he either wins or loses to the eventual champion every year he plays from 1994-2000 and would have had a great shot to win in 1998 if not injured.

French Open:
1995: loses to eventual champion Muster in the SF
1996: wins
1997: loses to eventual champion Kuerten in five sets in the QF
1998: as the #6 seed, he has to play world #19 Enqvist in the second round and loses
1999: as the #1 seed, he has to play Chang in the first round and #30 Hrbaty in the second round. He loses to Hrbaty, who makes the SF
2000: loses to eventual champion Kuerten in five sets in the QF
2001: loses to eventual champion Kuerten in the QF

So, from 1995-2001, he wins or loses to the eventual champion 5/7 years, with those losses being to Muster at the peak of his powers and Kuerten during his dominant stretch. In the two years he loses early, he faces players in the second round whom he couldn't have faced under modern seeding (and, unfortunately, those are the two years w/weaker finalists). If we throw in 1994, he lost in the third round to Berasategui, who ended up making the final.

U.S. Open:
1999: loses to eventual champion Agassi in the SF
2001: loses to eventual champion Hewitt in the SF

Kafelnikov is better on the slower courts, but he still has two years where he loses to the eventual champion.

Conclusion: Reviewing Kafelnikov's results, to me it seems like he got pretty unlucky with draws during his prime, and he also got unlucky w/his injury before the 1998 Australian Open and the fact that his 2 off years at the French were the years when he could have avoided peak Muster and the reign of Kuerten.
 
There are 2 sides to every story. I can see some of your arguments but I would argue a guy with ZERO Masters titles overachieved to somehow win 2 slams.

Also check out the draws of the 2 slams he did win. A bunch of fast court specialists to win his Roland Garros title, not even one true clay courter, atleast the last 3 rounds. And don't even get me started on his comical Australian Open winning draw. So based on that too I would have to say he overachieved to win 2 slams. Plus considering he NEVER wins Roland Garros if Muster is not taken out for him in a huge upset. Lets face it Stich beating Muster, as talented and dangerous a player on any surface Stich is, and despite Muster's difficulty with serve and volley or fast court players, happens probably only 1 time out of 10, particularly with Stich coming back from a lay off. It just happened to be that day. And given the rest of Muster's draw to the final (Pioline, first time slam semi finalist Rosset who was nervous and played a horrible semi final) there is no way Muster loses in any other match before the final. So that alone was a huge stroke of luck for Kafelnikov, plus avoiding all the other clay courters or dangerous people- Costa, Bruguera, Courier, Agassi, Corretja, who all had a pretty high likelihood of beating him too. Not guaranteed but all would have had a good shot, Costa imparticular probably wins if they meet.

And Sampras who he 2-11 against, 0-9 off clay courts skipping the Australian Open he won. Granted this isn't Wimbledon or the US Open so Sampras might have been taken out for him, but in atleast half the Australians during this long stretch of time, Sampras either won the title or was beaten by only Agassi which pretty obviously does not happen here. And Kafelnikov does never win if they play obviously.
 
The traditional narrative was that Kafelnikov was lucky b/c his two Majors wins were (1) the 1996 French Open, when he faced fast court players in the money rounds; and (2) the 1999 Australian Open, where he famously thanked Sampras for not showing up.

On the other hand, it looks to me like he was pretty unlucky. Let's go by Major (other than Wimbledon, where I don't think he had a shot at winning, despite his Halle titles).

Australian Open:
1994: loses to eventual champion Sampras in the 2nd round 9-7 in the fifth set
1995: loses to eventual champion Agassi in the QF
1996: loses to eventual champion Becker in the QF
1997: injured
1998: injured (was 6-2 against finalist Rios and 7-2 against champion Korda)
1999: wins
2000: loses to Agassi in the final

So, he either wins or loses to the eventual champion every year he plays from 1994-2000 and would have had a great shot to win in 1998 if not injured.

French Open:
1995: loses to eventual champion Muster in the SF
1996: wins
1997: loses to eventual champion Kuerten in five sets in the QF
1998: as the #6 seed, he has to play world #19 Enqvist in the second round and loses
1999: as the #1 seed, he has to play Chang in the first round and #30 Hrbaty in the second round. He loses to Hrbaty, who makes the SF
2000: loses to eventual champion Kuerten in five sets in the QF
2001: loses to eventual champion Kuerten in the QF

So, from 1995-2001, he wins or loses to the eventual champion 5/7 years, with those losses being to Muster at the peak of his powers and Kuerten during his dominant stretch. In the two years he loses early, he faces players in the second round whom he couldn't have faced under modern seeding (and, unfortunately, those are the two years w/weaker finalists). If we throw in 1994, he lost in the third round to Berasategui, who ended up making the final.

U.S. Open:
1999: loses to eventual champion Agassi in the SF
2001: loses to eventual champion Hewitt in the SF

Kafelnikov is better on the slower courts, but he still has two years where he loses to the eventual champion.

Conclusion: Reviewing Kafelnikov's results, to me it seems like he got pretty unlucky with draws during his prime, and he also got unlucky w/his injury before the 1998 Australian Open and the fact that his 2 off years at the French were the years when he could have avoided peak Muster and the reign of Kuerten.

Now I will break down your majors you listed some with you.

1994 Australian Open: Yes this was an amazing effort, but I would say it is unlikely he wins the title in any scenario, even if he took Sampras out. He simply now opens it up for someone else (Courier or Martin or Edberg, probably Courier) to win the title now instead. He was way too inexperienced to go all the way here I am pretty sure. I mean do you think Mariaan DeSwardt wins Wimbledon 92 if she takes out eventual Champion Graf or Akiko Kijimuta wins Roland Garros 92 if she takes out eventual champion Seles, as both nearly did, particularly Akiko. I would bet the farm neither do, maybe DeSwaardt like 2% shot as she is a dangerous serve and volley player/big hitter, but most likely goes out in the quarters to Zvereva or something. Akiko would be something like sub zero chance.

1995 Australian Open: There was absolutely nothing outstanding about his performance here, Agassi served him a bagel in fact. I would say there is no way he wins the title here. Sampras and even Chang would have beaten him soundly here I feel. Good chance Courier beats him given their relative form despite his good record vs him. Not even a possible winner here.

1996 Australian Open: Again nothing noteworthy about his performance here. Becker beat him pretty easily. At best he might be one of like atleast 4 or 5 people who would have a good shot to win if somehow Becker went out in the round of 16, at what now already be a very weak slam with Sampras taken out, and Agassi in crummy form.

1998 Australian Open: His entire year was pretty bad. I would be stunned if he somehow won the title here if he played, despite the wide open draw.

2000 Australian Open: Would have lost to Sampras for sure as well, even with Sampras's phantom injury he mostly invented after the Agassi loss (aka sore loser). This was one of his most impressive ever slams form wise, and I still don't look at him as even close to not being lucky to win considering atleast 2 guys are pretty guaranteed to beat him.


1999 US Open- I guess, but already the heavy tournament favorite Sampras WD, which created a huge opportunity for Kafelnlikov and others, and he still couldn't beat the next biggest threat in Agassi. Again no way unlucky. Even if you want to have Agassi WD from the event or something too, which already makes it a real vulture slam with now Sampras and Agassi both out, he isn't even certain to win over Martin (despite his good head to head with him), Krajieck who he just barely escaped in the quarters as it was, and 1 or 2 others.

2001 US Open- LOL just no. Hewitt smoked him, Sampras would have easily beaten him considering he is Sampras's weenie off of clay. Yes even the dead footed Sampras of the final I am sure wins over Yevgeny. Agassi would have easily beaten him. Young Roddick in the form he was in would have likely beaten him. Rafter would have easily beaten him.


The French Open is literally the only place I can see your point a bit. That is in some cases.

1995 French- Naw. He was the weakest of the 4 semi finalists this year, and is never winning. Costa who lost in 5 sets to Muster in the quarters was also stronger this year. He only beat Agassi in the quarters since he was injured anyway.

1997 French- This was a big missed chance for him, but that is entirely his own fault. So depends what you mean by unlucky. He basically tanked the last 2 sets after going up 2 sets to 1 very inexperienced Kuerten.

1998 French- Yeah no, as already said 1998 was a nothing year for Kafelnikov, and he was never winning a major. Losing to Enqvist on clay is a joke anyway.

1999 French- Yes I agree his early draw was unlucky. His form was garbage around that time, he was not handling the controversial #1 pressure well, and was for sure never winning this event though.

2000 French- I agree here. This is literally the first time yet I fully agree with you. That said while he was unlucky to lose a great match to Kuerten, Kuerten was off his game that day and still managed to beat Kafelnikov. Kafelnikov had a bunch of near escapes to even reach Kuerten. And Ferrero and Norman both would have had a good shot to beat him anyway, so it is not like he is some near lock for the title even if he got past Kuerten.

2001 French- I agree here, but to a lesser extent than 2000. I think his likelihood of beating Ferrero and Corretja back to back is even less than his 2000 title shot, if he wins both matches.


So yeah no, except for the French Open a bit.
 

Musterrific

Hall of Fame
He fluked 2 vulture slams. He was extraordinarily lucky if anything. Apart from maybe Bruguera, he's probably the worst 2+ slam winner in history.
 
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He fluked 2 vulture slams. He was extraordinarily lucky if anything. Apart from maybe Bruguera, he's probably the worst 2 slam winner in history.
Kriek is worse than both but given they were Australian Opens before 1984 not sure if he even counts.

As for Bruguera, Bruguera was atleast more excellent on clay than Kafelnikov was on any one surface, but Kafelnikov is much more an all surface player, so toss up between them. I agree they are the two worst besides Kriek, by far. Even Rafter I consider clearly better, subjectively speaking anyway.
 

buscemi

Hall of Fame
Now I will break down your majors you listed some with you.

1994 Australian Open: Yes this was an amazing effort, but I would say it is unlikely he wins the title in any scenario, even if he took Sampras out. He simply now opens it up for someone else (Courier or Martin or Edberg, probably Courier) to win the title now instead. He was way too inexperienced to go all the way here I am pretty sure. I mean do you think Mariaan DeSwardt wins Wimbledon 92 if she takes out eventual Champion Graf or Akiko Kijimuta wins Roland Garros 92 if she takes out eventual champion Seles, as both nearly did, particularly Akiko. I would bet the farm neither do, maybe DeSwaardt like 2% shot as she is a dangerous serve and volley player/big hitter, but most likely goes out in the quarters to Zvereva or something. Akiko would be something like sub zero chance.

1995 Australian Open: There was absolutely nothing outstanding about his performance here, Agassi served him a bagel in fact. I would say there is no way he wins the title here. Sampras and even Chang would have beaten him soundly here I feel. Good chance Courier beats him given their relative form despite his good record vs him. Not even a possible winner here.

1996 Australian Open: Again nothing noteworthy about his performance here. Becker beat him pretty easily. At best he might be one of like atleast 4 or 5 people who would have a good shot to win if somehow Becker went out in the round of 16, at what now already be a very weak slam with Sampras taken out, and Agassi in crummy form.

1998 Australian Open: His entire year was pretty bad. I would be stunned if he somehow won the title here if he played, despite the wide open draw.

2000 Australian Open: Would have lost to Sampras for sure as well, even with Sampras's phantom injury he mostly invented after the Agassi loss (aka sore loser). This was one of his most impressive ever slams form wise, and I still don't look at him as even close to not being lucky to win considering atleast 2 guys are pretty guaranteed to beat him.


1999 US Open- I guess, but already the heavy tournament favorite Sampras WD, which created a huge opportunity for Kafelnlikov and others, and he still couldn't beat the next biggest threat in Agassi. Again no way unlucky. Even if you want to have Agassi WD from the event or something too, which already makes it a real vulture slam with now Sampras and Agassi both out, he isn't even certain to win over Martin (despite his good head to head with him), Krajieck who he just barely escaped in the quarters as it was, and 1 or 2 others.

2001 US Open- LOL just no. Hewitt smoked him, Sampras would have easily beaten him considering he is Sampras's weenie off of clay. Yes even the dead footed Sampras of the final I am sure wins over Yevgeny. Agassi would have easily beaten him. Young Roddick in the form he was in would have likely beaten him. Rafter would have easily beaten him.


The French Open is literally the only place I can see your point a bit. That is in some cases.

1995 French- Naw. He was the weakest of the 4 semi finalists this year, and is never winning. Costa who lost in 5 sets to Muster in the quarters was also stronger this year. He only beat Agassi in the quarters since he was injured anyway.

1997 French- This was a big missed chance for him, but that is entirely his own fault. So depends what you mean by unlucky. He basically tanked the last 2 sets after going up 2 sets to 1 very inexperienced Kuerten.

1998 French- Yeah no, as already said 1998 was a nothing year for Kafelnikov, and he was never winning a major. Losing to Enqvist on clay is a joke anyway.

1999 French- Yes I agree his early draw was unlucky. His form was garbage around that time, he was not handling the controversial #1 pressure well, and was for sure never winning this event though.

2000 French- I agree here. This is literally the first time yet I fully agree with you. That said while he was unlucky to lose a great match to Kuerten, Kuerten was off his game that day and still managed to beat Kafelnikov. Kafelnikov had a bunch of near escapes to even reach Kuerten. And Ferrero and Norman both would have had a good shot to beat him anyway, so it is not like he is some near lock for the title even if he got past Kuerten.

2001 French- I agree here, but to a lesser extent than 2000. I think his likelihood of beating Ferrero and Corretja back to back is even less than his 2000 title shot, if he wins both matches.


So yeah no, except for the French Open a bit.
I think my biggest point of contention would be 1998. Kafelnikov finished 1997 looking great, losing to Sampras in the Bercy SF, beating Korda (who would go on to win the '98 AO) to win Moscow, and beating Moya (who would win the '98 French) in the WTF SF before losing to Sampras in the final. Then, he hurt himself skiing, missed the '98 Australian, and, as you note, having a pretty underwhelming 1998. If he doesn't hurt himself skiing, I think he had a great shot at both of the first two Majors of the year.
 
I think my biggest point of contention would be 1998. Kafelnikov finished 1997 looking great, losing to Sampras in the Bercy SF, beating Korda (who would go on to win the '98 AO) to win Moscow, and beating Moya (who would win the '98 French) in the WTF SF before losing to Sampras in the final. Then, he hurt himself skiing, missed the '98 Australian, and, as you note, having a pretty underwhelming 1998. If he doesn't hurt himself skiing, I think he had a great shot at both of the first two Majors of the year.

Fair enough. You could be right here. I just don't have confidence in saying a player like Kafelnikov is a fairly safe bet to sweep through any draw, particularly in what would still be one of his worst years ultimately (even if he might have ended 1997 going into 1998 playing well). So yeah maybe the 1998 Australian Open would have been a real chance had he played, but it is far from a safe call either regardless of end tournament match ups.
 

buscemi

Hall of Fame
He fluked 2 vulture slams. He was extraordinarily lucky if anything. Apart from maybe Bruguera, he's probably the worst 2 slam winner in history.
Other players who have won 2 Majors in the Open Era:

-Stan Smith
-Ilie Năstase
-Johan Kriek
-Sergi Bruguera
-Pat Rafter
-Lleyton Hewitt
-Marat Safin

Like flyingforehands, I'd have Kafelnikov ahead of Kriek. I'd also have Kafelnikov ahead of Bruguera due to reaching #1 and being better across surfaces (plus winning his Olympic final).

He's below everyone else, but that's a pretty solid list of players, IMO.
 

NicoMK

Hall of Fame
He fluked 2 vulture slams. He was extraordinarily lucky if anything. Apart from maybe Bruguera, he's probably the worst 2+ slam winner in history.
I've always liked to see him play. Complete player, great serve and volleys, amazing backhand. Didn't seem to take tennis too seriously for a long time though, after 2000 he seemed to be on court just for the money, more or less.
 

tkramer15

Semi-Pro
I've written on here before about Kafelnikov, so I'll try to summarize my thoughts. I'm not sure whether he was "lucky" or "unlucky" to win two slams. Timing/circumstances/luck are always involved, and it could be argued that those factors were much more significant in the diverse '90s with surface/style specialization and only 16 seeds at grand slams.

What I do know is that, outside of maybe Agassi, Kafelnikov was the most consistent all surface player in the world from the period of 1994 through 2001. During that stretch of eight years, I don't believe any other player was as legitimate of a threat to go deep in, or win, a tournament on outdoor hard, clay, grass and indoors throughout the season as Kafelnikov was.

Because he played doubles most weeks that he played singles, Kafelnikov contested more matches than any of his high-ranking peers. That extreme level of effort (or likely over-exertion) likely contributed to Kafelnikov never winning a Masters title. For me, it's perhaps the quirkiest stat of 1990s-era greats.

While the lack of a Masters title certainly dings him, it's not like Kafelnikov fared poorly in those events. He reached five Masters finals -- three indoors, one on clay and one on outdoor hard -- and was also runner-up at the '97 ATP World Championship. Throw in another runner-up showing at the 2000 Australian, two US Open semis, a Roland Garros semi and three QFs and you've got one of the better resumes of the '90s.

I understand that none of these wins came on the player's preferred surface, but Kafelnikov scored three wins over world #1s at grand slams: Agassi (1995 RG), Sampras (1996 RG), and Kuerten (2001 USO).
 

jrepac

Hall of Fame
I've written on here before about Kafelnikov, so I'll try to summarize my thoughts. I'm not sure whether he was "lucky" or "unlucky" to win two slams. Timing/circumstances/luck are always involved, and it could be argued that those factors were much more significant in the diverse '90s with surface/style specialization and only 16 seeds at grand slams.

What I do know is that, outside of maybe Agassi, Kafelnikov was the most consistent all surface player in the world from the period of 1994 through 2001. During that stretch of eight years, I don't believe any other player was as legitimate of a threat to go deep in, or win, a tournament on outdoor hard, clay, grass and indoors throughout the season as Kafelnikov was.

Because he played doubles most weeks that he played singles, Kafelnikov contested more matches than any of his high-ranking peers. That extreme level of effort (or likely over-exertion) likely contributed to Kafelnikov never winning a Masters title. For me, it's perhaps the quirkiest stat of 1990s-era greats.

While the lack of a Masters title certainly dings him, it's not like Kafelnikov fared poorly in those events. He reached five Masters finals -- three indoors, one on clay and one on outdoor hard -- and was also runner-up at the '97 ATP World Championship. Throw in another runner-up showing at the 2000 Australian, two US Open semis, a Roland Garros semi and three QFs and you've got one of the better resumes of the '90s.

I understand that none of these wins came on the player's preferred surface, but Kafelnikov scored three wins over world #1s at grand slams: Agassi (1995 RG), Sampras (1996 RG), and Kuerten (2001 USO).
YK is a tricky one to assess. Winning one slam is a fluke, two, not so much. I always thought he was very talented, just inconsistent. He seemed to have a hard time getting past Agassi. I thought for sure he'd win a USO somewhere along the way, but it was not to be. Look, lots of very, very good players on that 2x list....I'd put Yegevny ahead of Kriek as well but since he did not get to #1, perhaps below Rafter, Hewitt and Safin
 

NatF

Bionic Poster
YK is a tricky one to assess. Winning one slam is a fluke, two, not so much. I always thought he was very talented, just inconsistent. He seemed to have a hard time getting past Agassi. I thought for sure he'd win a USO somewhere along the way, but it was not to be. Look, lots of very, very good players on that 2x list....I'd put Yegevny ahead of Kriek as well but since he did not get to #1, perhaps below Rafter, Hewitt and Safin
Agassi did basically every Kafelnikov did but better really. It's basically a more watchable version of the Djokovic vs Murray match-up.
 
He was an out and out two slam winner. Three at most. He was always gonna get two and that’s just how it worked out for him.
 

tkramer15

Semi-Pro
YK is a tricky one to assess. Winning one slam is a fluke, two, not so much. I always thought he was very talented, just inconsistent. He seemed to have a hard time getting past Agassi. I thought for sure he'd win a USO somewhere along the way, but it was not to be. Look, lots of very, very good players on that 2x list....I'd put Yegevny ahead of Kriek as well but since he did not get to #1, perhaps below Rafter, Hewitt and Safin
I wouldn't call winning any slam a fluke, even if obscure one-slam wonders like Gaudio or Thomas Johansson benefited from a collapse (Coria at the 2004 French) and whatever happened to Safin before or during that 2002 Australian Open final. Gaudio's draw was anything but easy -- He won six sets in a row over Hewitt and Nalbandian in the QF and SF to reach that final, and his earlier round opponents were anything but cupcakes. Gaudio was also among the best clay courters in that early-2000s period -- just behind Kuerten and Ferrero and alongside guys like Moya, Costa and Corretja, so it was plausible that he could win the French. I will admit, however, that Johansson's path to that 2002 Australian Open final was as weak of a road as I've ever seen.
 

tkramer15

Semi-Pro
Other players who have won 2 Majors in the Open Era:

-Stan Smith
-Ilie Năstase
-Johan Kriek
-Sergi Bruguera
-Pat Rafter
-Lleyton Hewitt
-Marat Safin

Like flyingforehands, I'd have Kafelnikov ahead of Kriek. I'd also have Kafelnikov ahead of Bruguera due to reaching #1 and being better across surfaces (plus winning his Olympic final).

He's below everyone else, but that's a pretty solid list of players, IMO.
I was a big Safin fan, but I don't see how he is considered on a higher plane than his fellow Russian Kafelnikov. Again, I'm talking about actual results, achievements, consistency, longevity, etc. To be fair, persistent knee issues from the middle of 2005 through the end of Safin's career in 2009 played a role in his decline. A wrist problem cost him most of 2003. And there's no argument as to who was the more popular player of the two.

However, the reality is that Kafelnikov won 609 matches to Safin's 422 and 26 titles to Safin's 15. Kafelnikov was also a fixture at the top of the rankings for nearly a decade. While Safin made himself known as early as 1998, he really only achieved sustained greatness for a total of about four or four and a half years. Nobody was more locked in than Safin was from the fall of 2004 through the 2005 Australian Open. The Masters title quirk undoubtedly hurts Kafelnikov here, since Safin won five. Yet, Kafelnikov's win/loss record in Masters events was actually better than Safin's, so I'm willing to cut Kafelnikov some slack. In fact, Kafelnikov's overall match winning percentage and grand slam match winning percentage were also both better than the younger Russian's.

I understand that many will point to Safin's slam victories over legends Sampras and Federer as overarching factors in ranking him above Kafelnikov. To me, that verifies Safin's ability to perhaps reach a higher ceiling than Kafelnikov, but it doesn't move the needle enough to sway the overall evaluation of their careers.
 

buscemi

Hall of Fame
I was a big Safin fan, but I don't see how he is considered on a higher plane than his fellow Russian Kafelnikov. Again, I'm talking about actual results, achievements, consistency, longevity, etc. To be fair, persistent knee issues from the middle of 2005 through the end of Safin's career in 2009 played a role in his decline. A wrist problem cost him most of 2003. And there's no argument as to who was the more popular player of the two.

However, the reality is that Kafelnikov won 609 matches to Safin's 422 and 26 titles to Safin's 15. Kafelnikov was also a fixture at the top of the rankings for nearly a decade. While Safin made himself known as early as 1998, he really only achieved sustained greatness for a total of about four or four and a half years. Nobody was more locked in than Safin was from the fall of 2004 through the 2005 Australian Open. The Masters title quirk undoubtedly hurts Kafelnikov here, since Safin won five. Yet, Kafelnikov's win/loss record in Masters events was actually better than Safin's, so I'm willing to cut Kafelnikov some slack. In fact, Kafelnikov's overall match winning percentage and grand slam match winning percentage were also both better than the younger Russian's.

I understand that many will point to Safin's slam victories over legends Sampras and Federer as overarching factors in ranking him above Kafelnikov. To me, that verifies Safin's ability to perhaps reach a higher ceiling than Kafelnikov, but it doesn't move the needle enough to sway the overall evaluation of their careers.
You've made a good argument for Kaflenikov over Safin. As you noted, 5 Masters Series titles vs. 0 is tough to overcome, but there are definitely some stats that favor Kafelnikov.
 
However, the reality is that Kafelnikov won 609 matches to Safin's 422 and 26 titles to Safin's 15. Kafelnikov was also a fixture at the top of the rankings for nearly a decade. While Safin made himself known as early as 1998, he really only achieved sustained greatness for a total of about four or four and a half years. Nobody was more locked in than Safin was from the fall of 2004 through the 2005 Australian Open. The Masters title quirk undoubtedly hurts Kafelnikov here, since Safin won five. Yet, Kafelnikov's win/loss record in Masters events was actually better than Safin's, so I'm willing to cut Kafelnikov some slack. In fact, Kafelnikov's overall match winning percentage and grand slam match winning percentage were also both better than the younger Russian's.
I actually have a hard time putting too much stock into winning percentage or matches or tournaments won as not every tournament or match values the same. As you said, Safin is 5:0 in Masters and while Yevgeny has a better winning percentage here, I would say this is rather irrelevant if you cannot win the whole thing, otherwise a guy with three quarters at a slam would be considered greater than a guy with one win and two first round losses which is ridiculous. Better things to argue for Kafelnikov here would be his Olympic gold medal, his Davis Cup win and, to a lesser extent his success in doubles.
I understand that many will point to Safin's slam victories over legends Sampras and Federer as overarching factors in ranking him above Kafelnikov. To me, that verifies Safin's ability to perhaps reach a higher ceiling than Kafelnikov, but it doesn't move the needle enough to sway the overall evaluation of their careers.
I get this logic and of course a slam is a slam, but we are also talking rather extreme cases here in terms of opposition. Thanking Sampras in the winner speech for skipping and hence opening the way to a AO title vs straight setting the same Pete at his way better slam as a 20 years old as well as beating a peak Federer and good Hewitt vs beating non-natural clay courters like Pete and Stich in their single deep FO runs. I can understand that people would give Safin extra points here, however you are right of course that it doesn’t change anything when comparing their actual results but only suggests that Safin’s peak was higher.
 
I was a big Safin fan, but I don't see how he is considered on a higher plane than his fellow Russian Kafelnikov. Again, I'm talking about actual results, achievements, consistency, longevity, etc. To be fair, persistent knee issues from the middle of 2005 through the end of Safin's career in 2009 played a role in his decline. A wrist problem cost him most of 2003. And there's no argument as to who was the more popular player of the two.

However, the reality is that Kafelnikov won 609 matches to Safin's 422 and 26 titles to Safin's 15. Kafelnikov was also a fixture at the top of the rankings for nearly a decade. While Safin made himself known as early as 1998, he really only achieved sustained greatness for a total of about four or four and a half years. Nobody was more locked in than Safin was from the fall of 2004 through the 2005 Australian Open. The Masters title quirk undoubtedly hurts Kafelnikov here, since Safin won five. Yet, Kafelnikov's win/loss record in Masters events was actually better than Safin's, so I'm willing to cut Kafelnikov some slack. In fact, Kafelnikov's overall match winning percentage and grand slam match winning percentage were also both better than the younger Russian's.

I understand that many will point to Safin's slam victories over legends Sampras and Federer as overarching factors in ranking him above Kafelnikov. To me, that verifies Safin's ability to perhaps reach a higher ceiling than Kafelnikov, but it doesn't move the needle enough to sway the overall evaluation of their careers.

5 Masters titles to 0. Considering both are 2 slam winners, and neither won a WTF title (and Olympics wasn't a big deal in 2000) that is already enough. And 5 Masters vs 0 (which is embarassing for a multi slam winner) is easily worth more than 15 or so more smaller tournaments. The only valid argument I could see for Kafelnikov is his doubles, as I am someone who has some regard for doubles, nothing about his singles career.

That is without even getting into Safin being a visibly far more talented player, and having many times more impressive and memorable wins for his slam titles than Kafelnikov have.
 

jrepac

Hall of Fame
I was a big Safin fan, but I don't see how he is considered on a higher plane than his fellow Russian Kafelnikov. Again, I'm talking about actual results, achievements, consistency, longevity, etc. To be fair, persistent knee issues from the middle of 2005 through the end of Safin's career in 2009 played a role in his decline. A wrist problem cost him most of 2003. And there's no argument as to who was the more popular player of the two.

However, the reality is that Kafelnikov won 609 matches to Safin's 422 and 26 titles to Safin's 15. Kafelnikov was also a fixture at the top of the rankings for nearly a decade. While Safin made himself known as early as 1998, he really only achieved sustained greatness for a total of about four or four and a half years. Nobody was more locked in than Safin was from the fall of 2004 through the 2005 Australian Open. The Masters title quirk undoubtedly hurts Kafelnikov here, since Safin won five. Yet, Kafelnikov's win/loss record in Masters events was actually better than Safin's, so I'm willing to cut Kafelnikov some slack. In fact, Kafelnikov's overall match winning percentage and grand slam match winning percentage were also both better than the younger Russian's.

I understand that many will point to Safin's slam victories over legends Sampras and Federer as overarching factors in ranking him above Kafelnikov. To me, that verifies Safin's ability to perhaps reach a higher ceiling than Kafelnikov, but it doesn't move the needle enough to sway the overall evaluation of their careers.
You make a good point...the figures are on your side. My perception was that Safin was the better player....maybe he is more talented.....but Kafelnikov clearly won more, played more.
 
You make a good point...the figures are on your side. My perception was that Safin was the better player....maybe he is more talented.....but Kafelnikov clearly won more, played more.

What constitutes winning more? I can ensure you NO player would take a career with 2 slams, 4 slam finals, 0 Masters, and 26 total titles over a career with 2 slams, 4 slam finals, 5 Masters, and 15 total titles. That is without even mentioning going down in history you beat peak Federer on a non clay surface to win a slam (the only one to do so), Hewitt, near prime Sampras, as well in your 2 slam wins vs beating Tomas Enqvist and Michael Stich the fast courter on clay, as your biggest wins in your 2 slams. That is before even mentioning that, the prior would be true. So if winning more means value of wins, and the career you would prefer that is Safin, even ignoring level of play/talent. I guess if winning more is only how many tournaments you win, then Virginia Wade "won more" than Serena Williams.
 

tkramer15

Semi-Pro
What constitutes winning more? I can ensure you NO player would take a career with 2 slams, 4 slam finals, 0 Masters, and 26 total titles over a career with 2 slams, 4 slam finals, 5 Masters, and 15 total titles. That is without even mentioning going down in history you beat peak Federer on a non clay surface to win a slam (the only one to do so), Hewitt, near prime Sampras, as well in your 2 slam wins vs beating Tomas Enqvist and Michael Stich the fast courter on clay, as your biggest wins in your 2 slams. That is before even mentioning that, the prior would be true. So if winning more means value of wins, and the career you would prefer that is Safin, even ignoring level of play/talent. I guess if winning more is only how many tournaments you win, then Virginia Wade "won more" than Serena Williams.
Again, I don't totally disagree with this stance. My approach gives more credence to longevity, consistency and repeatability. Too many fans put too little value on how difficult it is to maintain a high level of play for a decade. Too many fans whittle a player's entire career down to a handful of matches. For this reason alone, Kafelnikov is underrated. A case could be made for Agassi, minus his 1996-97 struggles, as the most consistent all-surface threat from 1994-2001. But Kafelnikov is probably the more appropriate player for that honor.

Safin no doubt had the more explosive game and the higher ceiling. He played extremely well in spurts and was highly entertaining. However, for me, it was a travesty that Safin was inducted into the Hall of Fame shortly after retirement while Kafelnikov had to wait nearly two decades. We can debate the value of certain figures, but there's no way that Kafelnikov and Safin are THAT far apart.

I am curious as to this analysis of which players someone beat en route to a slam title. Kafelnikov beat plenty of top players in big events, including slams, over the course of his career. Enqvist and Stich happened to be his finals opponents in his two slam victories. While those guys clearly aren't Federer, Sampras or Hewitt, neither is a joke. Stich was a wonderful all-surface talent, a slam winner and former world #2. In the second half of the '90s, Enqvist was consistent fixture inside or near the top 10. He reached a career high of #4 and won 19 career titles, including three Masters events. Draws absolutely mattered in the '90s. Kafelnikov had his share of tougher early rounds. That a little luck may have come his way on these occasions shouldn't affect his overall evaluation, particularly considering how consistent he was for so long.
 

tkramer15

Semi-Pro
I actually have a hard time putting too much stock into winning percentage or matches or tournaments won as not every tournament or match values the same. As you said, Safin is 5:0 in Masters and while Yevgeny has a better winning percentage here, I would say this is rather irrelevant if you cannot win the whole thing, otherwise a guy with three quarters at a slam would be considered greater than a guy with one win and two first round losses which is ridiculous. Better things to argue for Kafelnikov here would be his Olympic gold medal, his Davis Cup win and, to a lesser extent his success in doubles.

I get this logic and of course a slam is a slam, but we are also talking rather extreme cases here in terms of opposition. Thanking Sampras in the winner speech for skipping and hence opening the way to a AO title vs straight setting the same Pete at his way better slam as a 20 years old as well as beating a peak Federer and good Hewitt vs beating non-natural clay courters like Pete and Stich in their single deep FO runs. I can understand that people would give Safin extra points here, however you are right of course that it doesn’t change anything when comparing their actual results but only suggests that Safin’s peak was higher.
I know you don't put much stock in winning percentage, but on the whole, it can be illustrative. I'm not talking about a three quarterfinals versus one victory and two first round losses example. I'm talking about more than a decade's worth of data. In some regard, winning matches has to matter doesn't it haha? I'm just not sure I understand the notion by some fans that hundreds of matches essentially don't matter.

Let me break this down into more detail to show why I'm willing to cut Kafelnikov some slack for this weird outlier of zero Masters titles.

Kafelnikov's overall Masters match record: 117-77 (60.3%)
Kafelnikov's best Masters results: 5 runner-ups, 13 semifinals, 7 quarterfinals
Kafelnikov's top 10 wins at Masters events (13): #2 Stich, #5 Ivanisevic, #2 Stich, #5 Edberg, #4 Bruguera, #8 Enqvist, #5 Rusedski, #10 Henman, #2 Rios, #9 T. Martin, #3 Agassi, #5 Henman, #4 Moya

Safin's overall Masters match record: 114-82 (58.2%)
Safin's best Masters results: 5 titles, 3 runner-ups, 1 semifinal, 7 quarterfinals
Safin's top 10 wins at Masters events (13): #5 Kuerten, #5 Pioline, #2 Sampras, #8 Corretja, #1 Hewitt, #10 Moya, #1 Hewitt, #10 Grosjean, #7 Agassi, #10 Nalbandian, #3 Hewitt, #5 Davydenko, #9 Baghdatis

Depending on one's personal preference, one can make a number of inferences from the data. Kafelnikov featured in the semifinals or better in a whopping 18 Masters tournaments, double the number of times Safin reached at least that stage. But Safin won five titles, while Kafelnikov failed in each of his five finals appearances. I get it. That's a big difference.

Each beat an identical number of top 10 opponents at Masters events. Safin's cadre of scalps is probably slightly more impressive than Kafelnikov's, although it must be noted that Kafelnikov had other wins over the likes of Agassi, Bruguera, Krajicek, Korda, Ferrero, and Federer when each was ranked just outside the top 10. Admittedly, using ranking as a strict reflection of the quality of a win isn't great. The point here is that Kafelnkov, like Safin, scored plenty of quality wins.

Had Kafelnikov not been SUBSTANTIALLY more consistent for twice as long of a period (8-9 yrs vs. 4-5), not won an equal number of grand slams, not won 11 more titles, not appeared in 19 more finals and not won 187 more matches, then the 5-0 Masters title count would be impossible to overcome.
 
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It depends what you mean by unlucky. He had some tough draws times he losed, but easy ones to times he won or even made finals, so I guess it balances out. A better question is how many slams does he even win if he does not lose his final match? Probably not many.
 

jrepac

Hall of Fame
What constitutes winning more? I can ensure you NO player would take a career with 2 slams, 4 slam finals, 0 Masters, and 26 total titles over a career with 2 slams, 4 slam finals, 5 Masters, and 15 total titles. That is without even mentioning going down in history you beat peak Federer on a non clay surface to win a slam (the only one to do so), Hewitt, near prime Sampras, as well in your 2 slam wins vs beating Tomas Enqvist and Michael Stich the fast courter on clay, as your biggest wins in your 2 slams. That is before even mentioning that, the prior would be true. So if winning more means value of wins, and the career you would prefer that is Safin, even ignoring level of play/talent. I guess if winning more is only how many tournaments you win, then Virginia Wade "won more" than Serena Williams.
More is more, to some extent. That's not the whole picture entirely, but 26 titles is nothing to sneeze at. People remember the wins typically, not runners up. Kafelnikov and Safin have 2 slams each, which is pretty much a level set (tho' I give a tad more weight to the USO title of Safin). At the end of the day, it doesn't matter all that much who the opponent in the final was...except for adding more prestige to the win, but there is no "value" assignment to the wins (aside from level of tourney). If I beat Sampras or Joe Schmo in the Wimbledon final, it really doesn't matter. (Folks have had this debate endlessly in regard to Margaret Court and her GS wins...many in AO w/a minimalist field) Again, my reaction was to pick Safin...he always impressed me with his play, whereas Kafelnikov was steadier, and that shows in the 26 wins, it appears.
 
I agree no player would take Kafelnikov's career with the 0 Masters titles over Safin's, when both have 2 slams. That is without even factoring in Safin's way higher playing and talent level, both peak and overall. I agree with the several people who said that 5 Masters title and 2 slams is "winning more" than 2 slams, 0 Masters titles, and an Olympic Gold at a time the Olympics was nothing in tennis, unless the latter had atleast 50 more titles or something.

And nobody would forget Safin's slam wins given who he beat for them. Kafelnikov would make a good trivia question, as many even serious tennis fans will forget he won 2 slams before long, if many of them haven't already.
 
Now I will break down your majors you listed some with you.

1994 Australian Open: Yes this was an amazing effort, but I would say it is unlikely he wins the title in any scenario, even if he took Sampras out. He simply now opens it up for someone else (Courier or Martin or Edberg, probably Courier) to win the title now instead. He was way too inexperienced to go all the way here I am pretty sure. I mean do you think Mariaan DeSwardt wins Wimbledon 92 if she takes out eventual Champion Graf or Akiko Kijimuta wins Roland Garros 92 if she takes out eventual champion Seles, as both nearly did, particularly Akiko. I would bet the farm neither do, maybe DeSwaardt like 2% shot as she is a dangerous serve and volley player/big hitter, but most likely goes out in the quarters to Zvereva or something. Akiko would be something like sub zero chance.

1995 Australian Open: There was absolutely nothing outstanding about his performance here, Agassi served him a bagel in fact. I would say there is no way he wins the title here. Sampras and even Chang would have beaten him soundly here I feel. Good chance Courier beats him given their relative form despite his good record vs him. Not even a possible winner here.

1996 Australian Open: Again nothing noteworthy about his performance here. Becker beat him pretty easily. At best he might be one of like atleast 4 or 5 people who would have a good shot to win if somehow Becker went out in the round of 16, at what now already be a very weak slam with Sampras taken out, and Agassi in crummy form.

1998 Australian Open: His entire year was pretty bad. I would be stunned if he somehow won the title here if he played, despite the wide open draw.

2000 Australian Open: Would have lost to Sampras for sure as well, even with Sampras's phantom injury he mostly invented after the Agassi loss (aka sore loser). This was one of his most impressive ever slams form wise, and I still don't look at him as even close to not being lucky to win considering atleast 2 guys are pretty guaranteed to beat him.


1999 US Open- I guess, but already the heavy tournament favorite Sampras WD, which created a huge opportunity for Kafelnlikov and others, and he still couldn't beat the next biggest threat in Agassi. Again no way unlucky. Even if you want to have Agassi WD from the event or something too, which already makes it a real vulture slam with now Sampras and Agassi both out, he isn't even certain to win over Martin (despite his good head to head with him), Krajieck who he just barely escaped in the quarters as it was, and 1 or 2 others.

2001 US Open- LOL just no. Hewitt smoked him, Sampras would have easily beaten him considering he is Sampras's weenie off of clay. Yes even the dead footed Sampras of the final I am sure wins over Yevgeny. Agassi would have easily beaten him. Young Roddick in the form he was in would have likely beaten him. Rafter would have easily beaten him.


The French Open is literally the only place I can see your point a bit. That is in some cases.

1995 French- Naw. He was the weakest of the 4 semi finalists this year, and is never winning. Costa who lost in 5 sets to Muster in the quarters was also stronger this year. He only beat Agassi in the quarters since he was injured anyway.

1997 French- This was a big missed chance for him, but that is entirely his own fault. So depends what you mean by unlucky. He basically tanked the last 2 sets after going up 2 sets to 1 very inexperienced Kuerten.

1998 French- Yeah no, as already said 1998 was a nothing year for Kafelnikov, and he was never winning a major. Losing to Enqvist on clay is a joke anyway.

1999 French- Yes I agree his early draw was unlucky. His form was garbage around that time, he was not handling the controversial #1 pressure well, and was for sure never winning this event though.

2000 French- I agree here. This is literally the first time yet I fully agree with you. That said while he was unlucky to lose a great match to Kuerten, Kuerten was off his game that day and still managed to beat Kafelnikov. Kafelnikov had a bunch of near escapes to even reach Kuerten. And Ferrero and Norman both would have had a good shot to beat him anyway, so it is not like he is some near lock for the title even if he got past Kuerten.

2001 French- I agree here, but to a lesser extent than 2000. I think his likelihood of beating Ferrero and Corretja back to back is even less than his 2000 title shot, if he wins both matches.


So yeah no, except for the French Open a bit.

I disagree on the French Open a bit. I do think 1 French title is already good for him when he really only a RG only performer, like a poor mans Bruguera. However he did have opportunities to win a lot more there, although I am glad he didn't as his overall clay level isn't worthy of it. He had big chances to win in each of 97, 2000, and 2001 I feel.
 
He fluked 2 vulture slams. He was extraordinarily lucky if anything. Apart from maybe Bruguera, he's probably the worst 2+ slam winner in history.

Just noticed this. So ironic when I just compared him to Bruguera. Of course unlike Bruguera he is an all surface threat, but still they are similar in a lot of ways. Bruguera unlike Kafelnikov was atleast good enough to win Masters titles on his favorite surface though.
 
I think my biggest point of contention would be 1998. Kafelnikov finished 1997 looking great, losing to Sampras in the Bercy SF, beating Korda (who would go on to win the '98 AO) to win Moscow, and beating Moya (who would win the '98 French) in the WTF SF before losing to Sampras in the final. Then, he hurt himself skiing, missed the '98 Australian, and, as you note, having a pretty underwhelming 1998. If he doesn't hurt himself skiing, I think he had a great shot at both of the first two Majors of the year.

Yes he probably would have a good chance at the 98 Australian Open if he played. Many players, including many with only 0-3 slams missed slams they would have a viable chance of winning through injury or whatever, so I wouldn't say that happening the odd time makes him unlucky. And I had to guess Korda would beat him if he gets that far, very possibly Rios too who was playing very well before the final, and he is also vurnerable to an upset in any given round he faces a hot opponent.
 
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