Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
With uncertain futures surrounding the likes of popular veteran greats Pete Sampras, Patrick Rafter, and perhaps even Andre Agassi, men's tennis will soon need to rely on its blossoming stars, such as young Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu.
The 20-year-old Mathieu capped a remarkable run in Moscow last week by upsetting U.S. Open semifinalist Sjeng Schalken, 4-6, 6-2, 6-0, in the $1 million Kremlin Cup final at Olympic Stadium.
France's brightest young prospect recorded his first career ATP title after securing his spot in the Moscow draw as a qualifier. He became the first qualifier this year to hoist championship hardware by winning the last eight games against a helpless Schalken, who reached the final by dethroning five-time champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the semis.
Mathieu, who landed in the Kremlin Cup final by stunning mighty Russian Marat Safin in straight sets, wound up winning eight consecutive matches in Moscow, having claimed three of his victories in the qualifying round.
The Strasbourg native/Paris resident has long been touted as the next great French hope, especially after winning the 2000 Roland Garros junior title by defeating Spanish hopeful Tommy Robredo in the final. And although he'd reached only two ATP quarterfinals prior to last week, Mathieu had shown glimpses on his potential brilliance this year, including a surprising run to the fourth round at the French Open, where he was edged out in five sets by the legendary Agassi.
The 20-year-old Mathieu upset Sjeng Schalken in last week's Kremlin Cup final.
In Moscow, the hard-serving Mathieu also derailed veterans Jiri Novak and Rainer Schuettler, as well as his fellow youngster Robredo, en route to the crown.
"It's hard to realize that I won my first ATP title," said the 6-1, 163-pound Mathieu. "It does not happen very often that a qualifier wins an event. I've been waiting for this moment for a long time. This is what you play tennis for."
Don't look now, but the rapidly-rising Mathieu is currently ranked 47th in the world, this after closing out the 2001 season at No. 147 on the ledger. And he's tied for 49th (with Argentine Jose Acasuso) in the '02 Champions Race, which means you won't see him at the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai -- not this year anyway -- but he has improved his Race position by 207 spots, compared to a 256th-place finish last year.
Mathieu pocketed the most exciting paycheck of his young life in Moscow, walking away with $133,000 from the indoor-carpet event. He actually headed to Russia with a losing singles record in 2002, but exited the lucrative tourney with an 18-14 overall mark and a season total of $306,268.
The lanky Mathieu gives France a respectable five top-50 players in the world rankings (ATP Singles Entry System), joining the likes of Sebastien Grosjean (8), Nicolas Escude (41), Arnaud Clement (42), and Fabrice Santoro (49). The resurgent French are also the reigning Davis Cup champions and will appear in the 2002 final against Russia late next month.
Mathieu posted a so-so 4-4 record in the Slams this year, including a disappointing 1-3 combined mark at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. At the French Open, he claimed his first three matches before finally falling to Agassi 6-3 in the fifth set.
The hard-hitting Mathieu is typical of the up-and-coming stars on the tour, a baseliner that possesses a big serve and powerful groundstrokes. His title in Moscow won't be his last on the deep circuit, which could see the Frenchman challenge for a top-10 spot within the next year.
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