Tennis: Rafter coping with weight of Australian expectation

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The Independent Online
The Australian Open gets underway on Monday, and the hosts have a current Grand Slam singles champion to support for the first time since Pat Cash in 1988, when the tournament was transferred from the grass of Kooyong to the rubberised concrete courts of the National Tennis Centre in Melbourne. How will Pat Rafter cope with all the fuss?

While close to comparison with the "classy Aussies" of yesteryear admired by Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter is emphatically a character in his own right. That was underlined by the 26-year-old Queenslander's response to the acclaim which followed his triumph last September in succeeding Sampras as the United States Open champion.

"People are thinking that I'm some sort of genius now," Rafter said, "but it's not as if I'm this completely new player - I'm the same old sack of crap I always was.''

In which case, full marks for the packaging. Only Sampras, the defending champion, world champion and No 1 in the year-end world rankings for the past five years, is seeded higher than Rafter for the Australian Open men's singles title.

Since returning home for the first time in seven months after the ATP Tour Championship in Hannover in November, Rafter has sampled the interest his victory in New York created Down Under by participating in the Hopman Cup in Perth and in this week's Sydney International ATP Tour event. He was defeated in the semi-finals yesterday by Oxford's Tim Henman, 7-6, 7-5. Monday brings the big one at Melbourne Park, the first Grand Slam tournament of the year.

"Mate, listen, I don't know what to really expect," Rafter said. "I am figuring that it's going to be pretty crazy. Even when I've been 60 or 80 in the world it's been pretty crazy, pretty difficult to work outside, and I guess this time it's going to be a little bit more. I'm really looking forward to it. It's going to be a lot of fun. If I could just have a relaxed attitude instead of getting uptight about the whole situation, I think that's most important.''

Relaxation is not a problem for Rafter at his second home in Pembroke, Bermuda, where he gets about on a rented moped. Having experienced two years of frustration nursing tennis injuries, one of which caused him to retire during the second round of the 1996 Australian Open - "a blessing in disguise, because I realised by watching everybody else having success how much I wanted it as well" - he is determined to make the most of life.

"It has to be that way, mate, for me to continue to be out here," he said. "Listen, I'm not going to let this success keep me at home all the time so that I can't go out. I don't want to deal with people all the time but I'm going to have to do it. For me to stay normal, I'm going to have to do that. I'm going to continue to do what I love doing, that's enjoy myself off the court as well as on the court.''

Is he able to block out all the attention? "Well, I can't really block it out, I've just got to learn to deal with it. You have to deal with it, it's part of it, and when it gets too much I have to learn to say `No', in a nice way. I don't like to offend anyone.''

A year ago, Rafter and Britain's Greg Rusedski both lost in the first round of the Australian Open. They went on to meet in the final of the US Open. Rafter is currently ranked No 2 in the world, Rusedski No 6. "I think Greg's going to be up there for another couple of years," Rafter said. "First of all, he's got a great serve, everybody knows it. He's a great competitor. He's starting to move very well. You'll see him there for a while.''

Rafter also has the highest regard for Henman, the British No 2 currently ranked 19th in the world. "Timmy is potentially a top five player," the Australian said. "He's probably got to get a little stronger. When I've played him, he's got every shot. Behind Sampras, he's probably the next most talented player on the Tour, I think.

"He's got everything, except that bit of strength. That's the only thing I picked up on him, and I think he will work on that. He works hard. He's a great guy, great attitude. He's one of the boys in the locker room, messing around. He knows how to enjoy tennis, and I think that's important. That's his personality, a good guy to hang around.''

Unlike Henman and Rusedski and the majority of leading players, Rafter does not travel with a full-time coach, preferring instead to consult Australia's Davis Cup mentors, John Newcombe and Tony Roche, when he feels the need.

"It think the reason it really does suit me so well is because when I'm practising, first of all, I've got to learn that if I'm on the court, I'm playing the match, and I've got to learn to figure out the match myself. There are times when I feel I might form bad habits, but I'm pretty well aware of that at the moment. I'm pretty aware of my game. My game's pretty well moulded." John McEnroe in his prime travelled without a coach, making telephone calls to Tony Palafox in New York if he needed advice and visiting him at his tennis club if his game needed fine-tuning. "Well, I think Roche and Newcombe are really good like that," Rafter said. "Sometimes if I feel like something's not going well, I ring them up and talk about it." They are expected to be in close proximity on home territory.

On the last occasion Rafter raised expectations at the Australian Open, in 1995, he advanced to play Andre Agassi in the fourth round. Agassi, the eventual champion, cuffed him, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0.

"I did learn a lot from that," Rafter said. "At the same time, I think Andre was at the top of his game then, and I wasn't playing the best tennis. I struggled through a couple of five-set matches [against Jakob Hlasek and Marcos Ondruska] to get through to the fourth round. I was pretty lucky to get through there. I guess I wasn't really prepared for that match. I wasn't ready. I wasn't in the same league as Andre, and he showed that. That's what knocked me back down a couple of pegs.''

Rafter's renewed confidence and the athleticism of his all-court game has enabled him to delight spectators on every continent. What pleases him most about his game is his improved mobility. "I've just been able to move and get to nearly every ball," he said. "That's frustrating people, I think, so they're going for more and more, and eventually they're missing. And when I get the right ball, I'm at the net." And before long the umpire is announcing game, set and match.