"I have retired from professional tennis," the Russian former World No 1 Yegevny Kafelnikov told me at the 888.com. PacificPoker Million Dollar Texas Hold'em tournament at Maidstone, England. "Poker is my new sport."
He is doing very well at it. While the results of the Pacific Poker Tournament have to remain secret until they are shown on television in December, there is no doubt that we are witnessing the arrival of a new force to the poker tables.
He has been playing for less than year, but he has already outlasted a field of 52 to win $10,780 in a $300 Omaha Hi-Lo competition in Moscow. Among them was acknowledged master Dave Colclough, who told me "Yegevny is a gifted poker player, who is certain to do well at the
highest level of the game."
In his eleven years as a tennis pro, he had won 27 singles titles and 26 doubles titles. In 1996 he triumphed in the French Open and in 1999 in the Australian Open.
On May 3, 1999, he had officially become the world's No. 1, tennis player and Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent him a congratulatory telegram: "For the first time in the 122-year history of tennis, a Russian sportsman has become the world's top player." And he went on to win the gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
But by the start of 2003, he was down to No 28 in the world rankings.
One night, after playing roulette in a Moscow casino, he wandered into the card-room and saw an old friend playing there. This was Kirill Gerasimov, at that time World Heads-Up Champion and later to come second in the 2003 World Poker Tour and fifth in the 2004 WSOP.
Kirill invited him to sit and watch, and later tutored the tennis player in the skills of poker.
Online, Yegevny got to 22nd place in a PokerStars' $500 Hold'em tournament, which won him $3500, and he won a PartyPoker tourney which paid $8000.
"In both tennis and poker you've got to believe in yourself," told me. "And you have to go on believing in yourself until the very last moment. I have won tennis matches from 1 - 6 down in the final set, and I've won poker tournaments - small ones as yet - when I have been all-in several times before clawing back."
Every day, he still does 30 minutes of warm-up on a stationary bicycle, 30 minutes of weight lifting with dumbbells and 50 push-ups, as well as maintaining his tennis game.
"If you watch other poker players as carefully as I do you can see the fat and out-of-condition ones losing their concentration over the long periods of time that many games take," he told me.
"That doesn't happen to people who keep themselves really fit. Your brain gets fit along with your body. So it's thanks to tennis that I am winning at poker."
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