Tennis: Kuerten call for Rafter

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THERE has been some quirky activity at the top of the ATP Tour world rankings of late, but whether or not Pat Rafter supplants Yevgeny Kafelnikov by winning the Italian Open today, the popular Australian undoubtedly played like a No 1 in the grand manner yesterday.

While the notion of becoming the first man from the the land of Laver to reach the summit since John Newcombe in 1974 obviously appeals to Rafter, the 26-year-old Queenslander is trying to contain his excitement in case it consumes him. That approach served him well en route to winning the United States Open in consecutive years.

He has been made aware, however, of the anticipation which is building back home, where the yearning for an Australian to rule the tennis world again is strong. If he continues to play as he did yesterday, the rejoicing will be universal.

The challenge Rafter faces today is formidable: a duel over the best of five sets with Gustavo Kuerten, the Brazilian who won the 1997 French Open, who was the winner of the Monte Carlo Open last month, and who has won more matches (27) than any other player on the Tour this year.

It will be the first time Rafter and Kuerten have played each other. In the semi-finals yesterday, Kuerten defeated Alex Corretja, of Spain, who won the ATP Tour Championship in Hanover, 6-4, 6-2. Rafter did not just defeat Felix Mantilla, 6-3, 7-5, he treated his Spanish opponent, and an entranced crowd at the Foro Italico, to a sublime exhibition of attacking tennis on clay.

Pete Sampras also showed a hearty disregard of his supposed limitations on the sport's slowest surface by winning the Italian title in 1994, defeating such efficient backcourt players as Aaron Krickstein, Corretja, Andrei Chesnokov, Andrea Gaudenzi and Slava Dosedel before dispatching Boris Becker, a fellow netman, in the final. Since then, however, Sampras's fortunes on clay have dwindled.

Rafter, having decided to stick to his natural game whatever the surface, was able to draw all the elements together against Mantilla, a counter- puncher.

Even Mantilla was taken aback by the consistency of the Australian's sliced backhand, and the audacity of his perfectly angled drop shots, and the timing of his lobs. "Sometimes he was playing the ball so slowly that it was like my mother was hitting the ball," the Spaniard said.

Mantilla became so frustrated by his lack of success in curbing Rafter, that he, too, started to attack the net, though without the Australian's flowing confidence. Rafter's dominant start was rewarded when he gained the decisive break for 4-2 in the opening set. Of the eight points Rafter conceded on his serve in the set, four came in the seventh game (one was a double-fault).

Dark clouds and the odd spot of rain brought an ominous aspect to the second set without delaying play, and Rafter continued to pursue the points, breaking for 3-2, but Mantilla managed to break back for 4-4, converting his only break point.

The rallying gained an extra edge, but Rafter was far too settled into his smooth rhythm to be detained for another set. He broke for 6-5, tormenting Mantilla with a series of sliced backhands before delivering a top-spin forehand which the Spaniard returned into the net. Rafter served out to 15, converting his first match point with a high forehand volley.

"I'm not going to know how I'm going to handle the chance of playing to be No 1 until I see how my game matches up tomorrow," he said. "It's always been an unrealistic goal for me."

Asked why, Rafter said: "When I was a little kid, myself and my first coach [Gavin Yarrowe] used to joke about about it. `You'ren going to be No 10, and then No 1', Gavin would say. He was always so positive, and I just used to play along with it.''