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Friday, 29 November, 2002, 15:25 GMT
Safin puts Russia ahead
Marat Safin on his way to winning the first set of the opening rubber
Marat Safin got Russia off to a great start
Marat Safin beat Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-4

Marat Safin survived a mid-match wobble to beat Paul-Henri Mathieu in the first rubber of the Davis Cup final between Russia and holders France.

The world number three used his greater experience of the big occasion to overcome his exuberant 20-year-old opponent.

It was a gamble for French captain Guy Forget to play the debutant Mathieu.

And Forget hinted that Mathieu may not get the call if the tie goes down to a deciding fifth game.

"I am not sure Mathieu will play on Sunday yet, I cannot give you any firm indication," said Forget.

"I hope we'll win the doubles tomorrow and maybe Mathieu's match won't even count.

Paul-Henri Mathieu in action against Marat Safin
Mathieu was demolished in the third set

"But this is something I have to think about."

Safin took the first set after breaking Mathieu's serve in the seventh game and won it 6-4.

But the young Frenchman, making his Davis Cup debut in front of the impassioned home fans in Paris, held his nerve to take the second 6-3.

He was aided by one of Safin's trademark mental lapses early on, but the Russian got his act together again in the third set.

The former US Open champion raced to a 5-0 lead with two breaks of serve before Mathieu finally pulled a game back for 5-1.

Safin then served out to lead by two sets to one on the clay of the Bercy indoor arena.

And he looked to have the match wrapped up as he pulled away for a 5-2 lead in the fourth set with two breaks.

But Mathieu, inspired by a noisy crowd, dug deep to drag himself back into the contest, saving a match point before breaking Safin.

He then took advantage of a bad tumble by the Russian to add further momentum to his comeback, bringing the set back to 5-4.

But Safin took his next chance to beat the 20-year-old, serving a match-winning ace to put Russia in the driving seat.

"I think that today he is the best player in the world," Mathieu said of Safin.

"It was really hard."

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BBC Five Live's Jonathan Overend
"This tie stays totally unpredictable"

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