Tennis: Rafter learns the mind game

John Roberts finds the reigning US Open champion eager to put a miserable year behind him
PAT RAFTER chose to complete his preparation for the defence of the United States Open title next week by participating in the Hamlet Cup, which is a tempting excuse for an obvious line: "Alas, poor Patrick, I knew him well".

The 25-year-old Australian has actually performed with a good deal of confidence since returning to the concrete courts of America, on which he excelled himself a year ago by defeating Britain's Greg Rusedski in the first men's singles final to be staged in the colossal Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadow. Rafter's recent form is encouraging, particularly in the light of some of the depressing moments he experienced after leaving New York in triumph.

Expectations were inevitably high for Rafter to do well on the rubberised concrete courts at the Australian Open in January, by which time he was ranked No 2 behind Pete Sampras. The athletic Rafter bounded past the American Todd Martin in the opening round, but then lost to Alberto Berasategui, one of the myriad of Spanish clay-courters, in four sets, three of them tie-breaks.

Not usually the type to be inhibited by the slow, red clay at the French Open, Rafter overcame the Canadian Sebastien Lareau in five sets, only to suffer a four-set defeat in the second round to a compatriot, Jason Stoltenberg.

At this juncture, John McEnroe ruffled a few kookaburra feathers by suggesting that Rafter was a one-Slam wonder. "I don't know if he is going to be right or not," Rafter says. "I spoke to John about it, not out of anger or anything. He just came up and said it was taken out of context, and what he had said was [along the lines of] I'd been struggling ever since I won the US Open, and he doesn't know whether I could get back on to win another Slam. I said, `Okay, fair enough, no worries'. John is someone who speaks off the hip quite a bit. And until I win another Grand Slam I don't think I can be too critical about John's comments anyway."

What McEnroe said certainly did not fire Rafter up for Wimbledon. There was not even a spark in his performance in the Stella Artois championships at London's Queen's Club, where he lost his opening match against Scott Draper, a fellow Australian, who went on to win the title.

Confirming he would complete his Wimbledon preparation by playing in the grass-court event in Rosmalen, Rafter said: "Perhaps I'll be able to turn things round in Holland. I can't get much flatter, I guess." He looked so miserable that nobody had the heart to pick up on the subconscious humour.

Rafter raised his game and lifted his spirits in the Netherlands sufficiently to enable him to advance to the fourth round at Wimbledon. He was beaten by Tim Henman, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 (few in Britain would be expected to sympathise with Rafter about that).

"It all started turning around after Queen's," he says. "It was just such an emotional time for me during Queen's. I was really struggling with everything; I had a couple of doubles matches at Queen's. To get some more matches in was important. Then I went to Rosmalen, and then all of a sudden a big weight lifted off my shoulders for some reason. I felt really confident with what I was doing and at ease with myself, and ever since then I've been able to maintain that. At times you lose your way, but it's so important to get that back when you are going through the tough times. I think I was hitting the ball well all the time. It's just a matter of feeling mentally fresh."

It was not, he emphasises, a case of the Dutch grass being greener. "I somehow learned to take the pressure off and felt happy with myself and everything as soon as I got into Rosmalen. Grass has never been my ideal surface. And I definitely got outplayed at Wimbledon anyway."

Whatever the reason, the Queenslander has made lively progress from Queen's, West Kensington, to Queen's, New York, winning titles in Toronto and Cincinnati, where he defeated Pete Sampras in the final.

Sampras, while not following McEnroe's line on Rafter, made the observation during the Stella Artois tournament that, "When you win a Grand Slam you're a marked man". The American has been a target ever since 1990, when, aged 19, he became the youngest winner of the United States men's singles title. The following year he actually expressed relief - "it's like a monkey off my back" - after losing to Jim Courier. Since then Sampras has become a veritable zoo, and is only one Grand Slam title short of matching Roy Emerson's record of 12.

Reminded of Sampras's words, Rafter says, "At times it has been tough dealing with a lot of extra things on the side other than tennis. But I don't think I will ever say it is a burden, because winning a Grand Slam was always a big dream of mine, and it has happened. It is always a very difficult challenge to win one. That is why you have to take your hat off for somebody like Pete, who has done it so many times."

Rafter, the No 3 seed, has proved himself capable of coping with the heat, noise and bustle of the US Open, and the least he expects from Flushing Meadow is an even bounce. "The biggest reason I like hardcourt," he says, "is because it's a surface I can move well on, and when I move well, I play well. I get a lot of kick off the serve, and it gets me in a good position for my first volley. They're my biggest strengths, and when they're working, everything else falls into place. Hardcourt is by far my best surface."

While the elements which make Rafter such a compelling player appear to be falling into place, he is determined to contain his enthusiasm. "I'm not really excited or anything," he says. "It is another great occasion. I am playing well, but it is important that I don't get too excited to be at the event, because I think it can work against you. I think it is important to keep level-headed going into a Grand Slam, and not be overly confident."