Rafter's sense of history

Warming up for Wimbledon: A decade after Cash's Centre Court triumph, two Aussies are in the mood for a repeat; Stan Hey talks to the player tipped for stardom by his countrymen
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It mighthave been something to do with the proximity of Earl's Court, two stops down the District Line, but the Australian players at last week's Stella Artois tournament at Queen's Club seemed at home. Scott Draper put out the world No 2 Michael Chang on Wednesday.

Meanwhile Mark Philippoussis battled through to today's final and Patrick Rafter reached the quarter-finals, confirming their progress up the world rankings where they are at present placed 19th and 17th respectively.

But the achievement of the Aussies has more resonance this year because it is the 10th anniversary of the last Australian win in the men's singles at Wimbledon when Pat Cash defeated Ivan Lendl in straight sets. Before that a legion of famous players - Lew Hoad, Neale Fraser, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and John Newcombe - had been etched on to the scroll of honour. But time is running out for a new name this decade.

"Wimbledon is the one that all the Aussies try to peak for, the biggest tournament of the year," Rafter says, acknowledging the burden of history without mentioning that he might be best placed to lift it. Indeed, until recently, Australia might have anticipated a low-key Wimbledon but then Rafter's dramatic progress to a heroic semi-final defeat against Sergi Bruguera at the French Open nine days ago - "Patrick gave me no moment to breathe," an impressed Bruguera observed - suddenly gave the nation the potential to dream again.

"Rafter's performance in Paris caused a tumultuous response back home," one Australian television reporter told me. "The people are looking on him as their big hope for Wimbledon. They feel he's the new Pat Cash, because he's got the looks and the swagger. In the last six months Rafter's shown both form and maturity, so he's very much the focus. They even did a whole 60 Minutes documentary on him."

For Rafter this is something of a second birth. In 1993, aged 20, he was voted Newcomer of the Year on the ATP tour after one semi-final and one final placing and a defeat of world No 1 Pete Sampras. His first tour win came on Manchester's grass courts the following year - a tournament incidentally that Sampras had won in 1990 to announce his lawn tennis credentials - which together with wins over Michael Chang at Key Biscayne and then Thomas Muster at the French Open, lifted him up to 21 in the ATP world rankings.

Everything looked good for a young Queenslander who had taken up tennis at the age of five, playing with his dad and three older brothers. But then a sequence of catastrophic injuries set him back. First he needed surgery for a torn ligament in his right wrist. Then last year, though he reached the quarter-finals at Queen's and the last 16 at Wimbledon before Goran Ivanisevic took him out in four sets, problems in his right shoulder denied him the chance to build on this progress. But rest and physiotherapy seem to have done the trick, not to mention a new clarity of thought.

"Before the injuries I used to be a bit tense as a player but now I have a much more relaxed mental attitude," Rafter says, a broad smile lighting up his still boyish features which are framed by the floppiest hair since the Spurs goalkeeper Ian Walker. In contrast to many of the "totally focused" robots of the circuits, Rafter has a sense of humour bubbling under the surface charm.

He declines to make predictions - "One match at a time, mate" - and when asked about his preparation for Wimbledon, with most players heading for the Nottingham tournament, he prefers another venue. "I'm off to Lord's to see the cricket, see if we can get our own back on you guys. But I'll be working really hard in practice early next week," he stresses.

This isn't to suggest that Rafter is frivolous about his tennis. On court against Jim Courier last Thursday he chided himself with an audible obscenity and later a shout of "hit the damn thing!" as he tried to work his way round Courier's powerful ground strokes. After losing the first set, Rafter calmly and ruthlessly imposed his accurate first serves and crisp follow- up volleys upon the tough American.

Against a buoyant Greg Rusedski on Friday Rafter looked to have the match won, breaking serve in the seventh game of the second set and having coasted through the first 6-4. But the last three weeks' exertions finally took their toll on the Australian's legs. It probably didn't help that he had been out on court until well after 8pm the previous night playing doubles with Philippoussis. "I felt a bit tired but credit to Greg," Rafter concluded. Earlier he said that "the biggest thing in this game is finding the rhythm of winning, when you almost feel that you've forgotten how to lose. You want to hang on to it for as long as possible."

Rafter has been surfing this wave since February when, finding himself two sets down to France's Cedric Pioline in a Davis Cup tie, Australia's coach told him to "prepare for a war of attrition". Rafter nodded at the coach's advice and duly went out to win the next three sets, only to reveal to Newcombe afterwards that he had no idea what attrition meant. No worries, right?

How Aussies failed to cash in

1987 Second round: Peter Doohan (Aus) causes the surprise of the championships when he defeats the holder for the past two years, Boris Becker. Final: Pat Cash (Aus) beats I Lendl 7-6, 6-2, 7-5 and celebrates by climbing through the crowd and up to where his family and friends are sitting in the stand.

1988: Last 16: Mark Woodforde (Aus) loses to Ivan Lendl (Cz Rep); Simon Youl (Aus) loses to Stefan Edberg (Swe), the eventual champion; Wally Masur (Aus) loses to Miloslav Mecir (Cz Rep). Quarter-final: Cash's defence of his title ends with defeat by Becker.

1989: Last 16: John Fitzgerald (Aus) loses to three-time champion John McEnroe.

1990: Last 16: Cash loses to Becker.

1991: No Australian reaches the last 16.

1992: Last 16: Masur loses to the 1991 champion from Germany, Michael Stich.

1993: Last 16: Masur loses to Cedric Pioline (Fr).

1994: No Australian reaches the last 16.

1995: No Australian reaches the last 16.

1996: Last 16: Patrick Rafter (Aus) loses to Goran Ivanisevic (Croa). Semi-finals: Jason Stoltenberg (Aus) loses to R Krajicek (Hol), the eventual winner.