Scott Draper: On the green from the baseline

He was among the world's top 50 tennis players before personal tragedy led to disillusion. Scott Draper tells James Corrigan why he is now pursuing a new sporting dream
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The Independent Online

Scott Draper's blower has been ringing off the wall this week. If it hasn't been journalists wanting to know all about him becoming the first man in history to win official professional events in both tennis and golf, it has been Hollywood executives desperate to buy up the Queenslander's incredible story.

To his credit, Draper has answered each one with courtesy and provided all the colour necessary to trace the scene of his remarkable victory in last weekend's New South Wales PGA Championship, through to his equally remarkable decision of a fortnight before to decline a lucrative offer to become Lleyton Hewitt's permanent coach. But, as he has talked of forsaking the comfort zone for his dreams, he has been keen to stress just one point. "This is not a sideshow," he tells you. "To me, it's much more than that."

People might just care to take Draper at his word; he has made something of a habit of remaining true to it. Ever since he defied psychiatric convention by beating obsessive compulsive disorder in one turn of a car key, Draper has been disproving the impossible. Apart from coping with a condition that almost hospitalised him, Draper has also overcome the grief of the death of his first wife, to become a top-50 tennis player and now a legitimate golf pro, playing the former left-handed and the latter right-handed. All by the age of 32. No wonder Eric Bana, the celebrated Australian actor, has shown such a desire to take the role.

The first scene might very well be outside his family home as the teenager prepares for a journey that would eventually sum up his whole career. Having won the junior doubles title at Wimbledon in 1992, the game of Australia's leading prospect had suddenly imploded as OCD did its worst. "It would take me three hours to get to bed," he said recently in a frank interview with ABC, the Australian network.

"I would go around the room, straightening things, touching things three times, everything having to happen in multiples of three. It was unbelievably weird stuff and I knew all along that I'd lost the plot.

"It lasted for about nine months. What happened was I just got my driving licence and I was due to drive to a satellite tournament down in Sydney. I said to myself, 'OK, the day my front wheels leave this driveway, it will never happen again.' That was it. The front wheels left the driveway and I never did the obsessive-compulsive stuff again."

It was not all go-faster stripes and alloys, though. For a few years, Draper scratched around in the tennis under-leagues, struggling with a feisty temperament that caused him repeatedly to ponder a premature retirement. But then he found Dr Michael Fox, a sports psychologist and Vietnam veteran, who taught him self- discipline and within a year he had cracked the top 100. Such mental fortitude was to prove invaluable to Draper off the court as well as on it.

In the mid-Nineties, Draper married Kellie, an outwardly beautiful, fit young woman but who in reality was suffering from cystic fibrosis. While travelling with her husband on tour, Kellie would need hours of massage and Draper would come back in the evening to administer the necessaries. To the ignorant, an obviously distracted Draper did not possess the required commitment, although what happened at the 1998 French Open exemplified the pressure he was under.

"At about 1am, my wife woke up in extraordinary pain and we went to a hospital in Paris," he recalled. "She had emergency surgery at about 6 or 7 in the morning. My wife was a person who hated being a burden and would have wanted me to play. So, there I am, still in my PJs with a ham and cheese baguette, racing back to the Champs-Elysées where we were staying. I got my gear, got back in the cab, raced off to Roland Garros, got there at 10.50am and my match was at 11. I had a knee problem at the time and I'm up on the table, calling out to the trainers, 'Quick, tape my knee. Tape my knee'."

Somehow Draper won that first-round match. "My motivation was I'm not going to go back to the hospital and tell Kel that I lost," he said. A few weeks later he took the inconceivable a step further when lifting the Stella Artois title at Queen's. "I got to 42 in the world, my highest ranking ever, whilst my wife was probably the sickest she'd ever been," said Draper. "Even though she had an incurable disease, you always were thinking, 'Well, she's going to live to 40 or 50'. It was that hope thing. You're always living in hope."

The hope finally ran out the following year when, at 25, Kellie died. Draper (right) tried to relaunch himself straight back on to tour, but the decision, however brave, was inevitably to backfire. "When I was out there playing, I just wanted to get off," he said. "I even went to the stage of thinking that sport was stupid. This isn't life. There's more to life than playing tennis."

With Jason Stoltenberg, his friend and Davis Cup team-mate, Draper found a measure of solace on the golf course, although he drank too much and ate too much. After a few years in the wilderness he did make a spectacular return and enjoy a rousing year in 2003 - in which he actually had seven match points against Roger Federer, a month after the Swiss had won his first major at Wimbledon - but the fates would strike again with a knee injury that meant him missing the 2004 season. "I thought, OK, I'll go down and play this golf tour school," he said.

Stoltenberg and the rest of his golfing pals laughed. Draper was typically unfazed. His dual talent first hit the headlines when he bucked the astronomical odds by surviving the hell that is Australasian Tour qualifying school and for 2005 he actually led a double professional existence.

At the 2005 Australian Open this reached almost farcical levels as he tried to compete at both the Grand Slam and that week's Victorian Open. "I got up about 5.30am, went to the course, teed off about 7am and played 18 holes," he said. "Then I raced off to Melbourne Park. Sam Stosur, my mixed doubles partner, didn't actually know a lot about it until later in the tournament and she figured, 'Well, we're playing well, so let's not change it'. But it's not something I would do again. I was a bit of a basket case for a while after it. But the fairy tale came true and we ended up winning that Australian Open title. We were all happy."

Nevertheless, Draper realised he had a choice to make and soon put away his racket for good. When the cuts were duly missed and the card was ultimately lost the cynics nodded and when Hewitt turned to him last month, at first temporarily for the year's first major, and then with a reported £300,000 contract, even his closest allies suspected the lure would be too strong. And Draper did agonise. "Sure, it was hard to decide between the safe road and following my dreams," he said. "Taking the coaching option seemed to be the most logical step, but I have a real passion for golf."

It is a passion that in June will take him and Jessica, his new and pregnant wife, all the way to America as he tries out on the Nationwide Tour, the feeder league for the big one. "You know, I'd love to be a part of the US tour," he said. "I think it's possible. I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't. I'm hoping that in a few years you'll be watching me play the Masters. I have just got to figure out a way to make it happen."

That process may just have started in earnest at Riverside Oaks last week. The first prize was only £6,600 and it was a mere second-tier event, but the nerveless manner in which he overhauled the four-shot lead of the defending champion, Paul Marantz, impressed all. Certainly, the short-game concerns that Draper, himself, has previously expressed were not in evidence and if he can marry this apparent improvement around the greens with a long game that his coach, Dennis McDade, believes defines him as a "genuine talent", then the ambition may not be too far-fetched.

Stoltenberg, for one, will not be doubting him again. "Scottie's made a lot of people eat their words because there are a lot of people who've said he can't do it and he will not do it, he's got no chance of doing it," he admitted. "Well, you know what? He's doing it."