Tennis: Rafter's rollercoaster year

It has been a far from easy ride in the last 12 months, the champion tells Gerard Wright
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THE FASTEST rackets in the world were meeting the fastest mouths in the world on a warm, balmy Los Angeles night and, for once, Pat Rafter could put the worst of times behind him and enjoy the best of them.

The occasion was a celebrity doubles match in aid of a charity for foster children. The centre court at UCLA's Strauss Stadium was packed to its 8,000 capacity, or just about enough to accommodate 120 stars and their entourages.

On an outside court, Rafter took his partner, Billy Crystal, through a gentle warm-up, Andre Agassi was doing the same for Robin Williams. Rafter might well have been the least blase person on the premises - "such nice blokes", he said the next day. Agassi has married into "the industry", as it is known in LA; Pete Sampras, who pulled out after minor surgery on his foot, spends his spare time with the actress Kimberley Williams. When Sampras withdrew from the celebrity match, Rafter immediately volunteered to step in.

"I had an opportunity to meet them and I don't think many people would turn that down," he said. "I didn't care how late I had to stay up."

It was stand-up, run-around comedy, with Rafter wisely choosing to play the straight man and remain silent although each of the participants was miked up. "I took my Viagra, I'm up for it," Williams announced during the knock-up.

In the silence before Crystal served to start the match, a mobile phone rang. This, briefly, was the world Rafter had entered. At the time, the price of admission seemed to be worth it.

The past 11 months and three weeks have been the highest and lowest of times for Rafter, who won the US Open, his first Grand Slam singles title, last year, and has since followed it up with two other titles at Rosmalen, on grass, in June, and earlier this month in the Canadian Open at Toronto. To listen to him now is to hear someone caught unawares by a victory he had dreamed of, but never prepared for, and then struggling to deal with its consequences.

"Up and down," he said, when asked to describe the period since then. "Very rocky, tough to deal with it. I guess the time before Wimbledon was the toughest time I ever had."

The blueprint on how to win a Grand Slam and get to the top of tennis was re-drawn last year by Rafter. At the start of 1997, he sacked his brother and benefactor, George, and travelled largely by himself. After that, he relied on the counsel of the Davis Cup coach Tony Roche at Grand Slams, and another brother, Peter, to handle his affairs in New York.

But, in referring to that blueprint again this year, Rafter found there was no instruction on how to deal with form slumps, constant off-court demands on his time, or his own and other people's expectations. "I tried to do exactly the same things as last year, but you can't, because things are different," he said. "You can't travel so much by yourself because you need someone there. You can't do the same schedule because you're playing more matches.

"All of these things have been a big learning experience for me. I went out all the time and enjoyed myself [last year], but this time, I don't really feel like doing it quite as much. I'm trying to do the same things I did last year, but it's not the same."

Most of these things Rafter keeps to himself when they're happening. Occasionally those struggles broke the surface of his composure, most notably at the French Open, in a second-round loss to his compatriot Jason Stoltenberg, notable for thrown rackets and other outbursts of temper.

"I wondered why I felt so weird," he said. "You're just trying to find yourself, I was talking it over with other people, telling them what I'm doing. They were saying 'You don't need to do that,' and they were right. Then I figured it out. It was a big burden [removed]."

The agility and confidence that was only sporadically there at Wimbledon now seem to be returning. The long shot that a successful defence of his title would have been a month ago now looks a considerably better bet. "It's going to be an anxious time," Rafter said of his build-up to Flushing Meadow. "Obviously, it's hard to defend a title, I don't care what title it is. It's good to get back on hard courts, that's my surface, that's where I feel most at home."

There have been other changes since that US Open as well. For one thing, his doubles pairing with Mark Philippoussis, the "Scream Team" of last year's Wimbledon, is no more. Neither is the camaraderie the pair once had. "We just lost a bit of friendship there, something was lacking," Rafter said.

"I just said: 'Listen, if you're not my friend, if you're not going to be great mates, I don't want to play doubles with you.' That's why I play doubles, I play with friends. I don't play because I want the money, or I want this or that. I want to play because I enjoy it."

As a team, Rafter and Philippoussis won the doubles title at Queen's last year, and reached the semi-finals of both Wimbledon and the US Open in 1996. Rafter had no explanation for why the relationship had faltered. "I have no idea. I don't know that there was anything said or done. It just sort of slipped away."

Rafter now plays doubles with Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden. The pair reached the semi-finals of the French Open this year. In January, Rafter described the Swede he nicknames "Jerky" as one of his closest friends on the tour.

Clearly, that designation no longer belongs to Philippoussis. "I'm not regretful at all for it," he said of the apparent end of their friendship. "He was a mate. If he goes away, I've got plenty of other friends that I hang out with. It's a shame, but I felt more ashamed for his sake. He's definitely changed."