Tennis: Rafter breaks new ground

Pat Rafter, in common with Rod Laver, learned to play tennis on crushed antbeds in Queensland. Chance proving to be a fine thing at this year's French Open, Rafter trusts that his run of form on the clay courts of Paris will enable him to become the first Australian men's singles finalist since Laver defeated his compatriot Ken Rosewall in 1969.

Laver's triumph - the second leg of his second Grand Slam - brought five consecutive years of Australian domination to a close. Overall, Australians have won the men's singles 11 times, one more than the United States, France and Sweden.

Rafter's path to emulating the feats of his predecessors is blocked by Spain's Sergi Bruguera - the only remaining seed (No 16) and the winner of the title in 1993 and 1994 - and one of tomorrow's other semi-finalists, Filip Dewulf, a Belgian qualifier, and Gustavo Kuerten, the colourful Brazilian.

While Rafter's serve-volley game baffled Galo Blanco, of Barcelona, in the quarter-finals yesterday, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3, the 24-year-old Australian is well aware that his record against Bruguera is not exactly a confidence- booster.

The Spaniard, who overcame Hicham Arazi of Morocco yesterday, 4-6, 6- 3, 6-2, 6-2, has won all but the last of his six previous matches against Rafter - and that one was played on concrete in Cincinnati last August.

Rafter has not even salvaged a set in their four matches on clay, two of which were at the French Open (1994 and 1995). Bruguera also won their one encounter on grass, 13-11 in the fifth set of an epic in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 1994.

"I'm going to keep serve-volleying against him," Rafter says, "but I think I'm doing it a little bit better now than I was in '94 and '95. He's going to have to hit a few more balls past me.''

The Australian appears to be more at ease with his game nowadays, summarising his approach to the European clay court season by saying: "The best advice I gave myself was that I was coming here for three weeks off. Clay court? Another break, another holiday for me.''

He was only half joking. After reaching the final in St Polten, Austria, the weekend before the French Open, he realised he might be busier here in Paris than usual. Had nobody ever told him that you cannot win this tournament by serving and volleying? "No, they said: `If the sun shines, you've got a good chance'.''

Perhaps, but he is still convincing himself. "Never have I ever thought of reaching this far in the French Open. I'm sort of more amazed than anything. Things are going great. The next match is another tough one. Again, it's winnable. He can also beat me, so I'm aware of that. It's an opportunity for me to make the finals.''

What he has achieved already will lift his ranking from No 25 to probably a seeding for Wimbledon, none of which he could have imagined at the beginning of the year, when rehabilitating from a wrist injury.

His fortunes changed for the better after he staged a remarkable comeback from two sets to love down to defeat Cedric Pioline during Australia's Davis Cup win against France, the holders, in Sydney.

"It was a huge moment," he said. "It was the first time I ever came back from two sets to love down. Now when I do go out there and lose a first set, go down a break in the second, it's not a panic stage for me. I know I've been able to do it, and I feel confident of doing it again. I think that was one of the really important things I got out of that match.''

Whatever happens in the First Test at Edgbaston today, Australia's second test will be on a tricky strip in Paris tomorrow. n Tim Henman, the British No 1, yesterday signed the biggest sponsorship contract ever awarded to a British player in a five-year deal to use Slazenger racquets.