Tennis: Rafter stands on the brink

Click to follow
PATRICK RAFTER, one of the more exciting prospects in men's tennis, will arrive at Wimbledon this week armed with the first title of his fledgling career. He won the Manchester Open here yesterday when he defeated Wayne Ferreira 7-6 7-6.

It was another triumph for the tie-break. Rafter reached the final via a grand act of brinkmanship against Karel Novacek, a match in which he failed to break the Czech's serve but triumphed 6-7 7-6 7-6. Yesterday, tennis's equivalent of the penalty shoot-out was necessary because neither player seemed able to grasp his opportunity.

Ferreira, the No 1 seed, blew his best chance when he double-faulted on set point in the first set. Rafter capitalised on that, but also came up short when it came to ruthlessness, getting broken (again via a double fault) when he was serving for the match. By the end it was a matter of who made the fewer mistakes rather than inspired strokes that settled it.

Which was hardly fitting for the 21-year-old Rafter, whose rise from 301 in the world rankings at the end of 1992 to his current position of 26 suggests he is a special talent. On Friday night he was voted the best newcomer of 1993 by his peers and it will be with some trepidation that his opponents will take to the court with him at the All England Club this coming fortnight.

'I've not played enough on grass to know whether it's a surface I fancy,' the Australian said, 'but I do know I feel happy with my game. He was the stronger going into the second tie-break so I'm pleased with myself that I showed the resilience to come through that. It should stand me in good stead at Wimbledon.'

Ferreira was also the stronger at the start. Rafter had been broken only once all tournament, against Jacco Eltingh in the quarter-finals, so it was an event in itself when he succumbed to 15 in the third game of the match. Ferreira appeared to have the set secure when he was 5-4 and 40-30 up but he double-faulted twice to give his opponent a reprieve and then lost the tie-break 7-5.

The South African then went through one of those spells when you wonder about the firmness of his backbone. He lost his next service game to 15 and seemed likely to surrender fairly tamely until Rafter too became profligate and allowed him back into the contest. Even the second tie-break was patchy, with both players handing the initiative to the other with double faults, before Rafter made the crucial thrust at 4-3. The end came with a thumping first serve that Ferreira's attempted backhand did not have a hope of returning.

Rafter joins an illustrious list of champions at the Northern Club at a poignant time for the Championships. Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors are just a few of the former players who have prepared for Wimbledon by winning here but that is almost certainly a thing of the past.

The Manchester Open will lose its ATP Tour status and, more importantly, its pre-

Wimbledon date next year unless the courts being built at the Nottingham Tennis Centre are not ready in time. An 'important' tournament is promised by the LTA but it is likely to be a Challenger event with around dollars 100,000 ( pounds 67,000)in prize money compared with the dollars 290,000 ( pounds 190,000) on offer this week.

The reason for the change is the size of the Northern Club which the LTA considers too cramped for an event of this status. The decision has caused ill-feeling locally as the first Northern tournament took place in 1880, just three years after Wimbledon, and because the opportunities to see players of real quality are scarce in this part of the country.