On this day: Yevgeny Kafelnikov conquers ATP throne despite a terrible streak

Since February 2004, only four players have reached the ATP throne, all of them working hard to get there and stay in front of the biggest rivals. We know how consistent Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have been during their reigns, and what effort it took from Andy Murray to pass Novak in the second part of 2016 to join them on the exclusive list. It wasn’t always the case, though, and a clear example is Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who became the 16th world no. 1 player on May 3, 1999. Yevgeny won the Australian Open in January and conquered Rotterdam a few weeks later, with a perfectly typical scenario to see a Major champion as world no. 1. Still, the story has one big catch: the Russian had lost the last seven matches in the ATP tournaments before conquering the top spot in the rankings! Something like that is unthinkable today, and Kafelnikov achieved the feat after a slow start from the previous decade’s best player Pete Sampras.

The American missed the Australian Open and competed in four tournaments before May, winning only seven matches. Carlos Moya was the third pretender for the throne, taking the top spot after reaching the final in Indian Wells, heading to Miami as world no. 1 and staying there for two weeks. Moya couldn’t deliver steady results in the upcoming weeks, propelling Kafelnikov at the top of men’s tennis despite the worst streak in the ATP tournaments of his career! After winning that title in Rotterdam, Yevgeny lost the London quarter-final to Thomas Johansson and suffered early exits at Indian Wells and Miami to Gustavo Kuerten and Vincent Spadea.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov lost seven straight ATP Tour matches before becoming No. 1.

Kafelnikov grabbed two Davis Cup wins against Germany in Frankfurt on an indoor carpet. However, he couldn’t catch a break when the clay season started, dropping all four encounters played in April against the rivals ranked outside the top-40! Andrei Pavel toppled him in Estoril in three sets before Franco Squillari served an early exit in Barcelona.

The worst was yet to come, though, with the 20-year-old Ivan Ljubicic demolishing him in Monte Carlo in just 44 minutes, followed by Richard Fromberg, who completed the Russian’s miserable month after beating him in Prague. Despite this disastrous streak, Kafelnikov would become world no. 1 on Monday after Prague, moving just 15 points clear of Pete Sampras (3382 in comparison to 3367) and staying there for six weeks before the American restored the order in June at his beloved grass. Kafelnikov would win seven more titles by the end of his career, including an Olympic gold medal in Sydney, never getting another chance to be ranked above all the others. He finished the 1999 season ranked second and stayed in the top-10 until October 2002, when he started to fade away from the big scene, ending his tennis journey in St. Petersburg in October 2003.

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