Tennis: Rafter's win affirms truly open era

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WHILE MANY people pine for the larger-than-life personalities (Nastase, Connors, McEnroe) and clear-cut rivalries (Evert and Navratilova), tennis cannot be accused of lacking a variety of major winners.

Eight different players - four men and four women - have won the singles titles at this year's Grand Slams, the championships of Australia, France, Wimbledon and the United States. It is only the second time that has happened in the 30 years of the open era.

Pat Rafter and Lindsay Davenport tied the bow on the package by winning the singles titles at the United States Open at the weekend. Rafter, in successfully defending the men's title against an Australian compatriot, Mark Philippoussis, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-0, continued to raise the game Down Under.

Davenport, who defeated Martina Hingis, the world No 1, in the women's final, and did not lose a set in the singles tournament, put a smile on the generally glum features of the American game.

Women's tennis appears to be in a healthy state at the highest level: feisty youngsters such as Hingis, the Williams sisters and Anna Kournikova, prompting hearty responses from mature competitors, Jana Novotna, the Wimbledon champion, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, the French Open champion, and Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, the sentimental champions. Davenport, aged 22, falls into a mid-term category.

Encouragingly for the men, eight different finalists featured in the men's singles at the Grand Slams - Petr Korda and Marcelo Rios, Carlos Moya and Alex Corretja, Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic, Rafter and Philippoussis.

Rafter, 25, in the long tradition of the great blokes of Australian tennis, has achieved stature on the the court to complement a winning personality.

John McEnroe, not the type to nibble at his words, never mind eat them, blamed the media for taking his pre-tournament "one-Slam wonder" line about Rafter out of context. Rafter is now one of six players, including McEnroe, to successfully defend the US championship in the open era.

"Last year was not such a fluke, then," Rafter said. "It would be great to have a little dig at him. But John's only been very positive to me in the locker-room, so I've got no bad feelings to say to John at all."

Although Rafter and Philippoussis seem to have repaired their Davis Cup rift at a personal level, the 21-year-old Philippoussis reiterated that playing for the team was not in his thoughts at the moment. He criticised John Newcombe, Australia's captain, and Tony Roche, the coach, for sitting in Rafter's guest box on Sunday night. "I was extremely disappointed," Philippoussis said. "They should have been neutral."

Rafter said: "Newc and Rochey's job is to work for the Davis Cup. Mark has not made himself available for Davis Cup selection at all. I didn't see Newc in my corner, anyway. Rochey's been there with me this whole couple of weeks. He's been there with the Davis Cup team for three or four years. They are here for Davis Cup. If Mark wants to play Davis Cup, they're happy to be in his corner."

Pat Cash was in Philippoussis's corner, along with Gavin Hopper, his trainer-coach. Philippoussis hopes Cash will become a full-time member of his team. "It's great having him by my side," Philippoussis said. "That's something we'll sit down and talk about. It's hard for him. There's a family involved."

Philippoussis, aged 10 when Cash won Wimbledon in 1987, is able to identify the gutsy serve-volleyer from Melbourne as an heroic figure. Great players that Newcombe and Roche were, Philippoussis knows them only by reputation.

Cash might be just the man to help put the awesome components of Philippoussis's game into running order. "I definitely need mental discipline and patience," Philippoussis said. "You know, not to go for the most unbelievable shot, the play of the day, instead of just getting the ball in, making my opponent play the shot."

Rafter, who came close to losing to Hicham Arazi, of Morocco, in the first round, made only five unforced errors against Philippoussis in the final. He said he found last year's final, against Britain's Greg Rusedski, more nerve-racking. "I didn't do that much wrong, except for a few double-faults," Philippoussis said. "Pat hit a lot of passing shots, and he made me volley a lot from my shoelaces. He was playing great tennis.

"It was like Stefan Edberg when I was playing him at the net. He was always coming in. You were expecting the pressure, expecting him to make some great volleys. You just try and make him miss a little. Only five unforced errors - you can't do anything."

Rafter and Philippoussis provided the first all-Australian men's singles final at the US Open since 1970, when Ken Rosewall defeated Tony Roche on grass at Forest Hills.

Wimbledon is now the only Grand Slam played on grass. When the Australian Open moved from the Melbourne suburb of Kooyong to near the city centre in 1988, the surface switched from grass to rubberised concrete.

Concern was expressed that the move to hard courts would gradually erode Australia's traditional attacking game. Rafter has now serve-volleyed to consecutive titles on the similar concrete courts at Flushing Meadow, and Philippoussis was not exactly inhibited. Neither player, however, feels as comfortable on Wimbledon's lawns.