Tennis: Sampras slight raises stakes for `Pat-trick'

US Open: American rival stands between Rafter and successful pursuit of third title at Flushing Meadows
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FROM THE time he gave his first interview, Pete Sampras has been telling the world that he models himself on "those classy Aussies", meaning the likes of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, Lew Hoad, Fred Stolle, John Newcombe, Tony Roche and Pat Rafter. Well, perhaps not Rafter. Pat has a habit of turning up at Pete's place and pilfering the silver.

"When I see him holding the US Open trophy, it pisses me off," Sampras says, which may appear selfish on the part of the great American, who once remarked that the difference between himself and Rafter was "10 Grand Slam titles". Sometimes champions do tend to be selfish, or at least self- centred, which is one of the reasons why they become champions.

But, make no mistake, Rafter is a classy Aussie. The only sneaky trick the 26-year-old Queenslander is known to have pulled in his tennis career was to squat at the top of the world rankings a few weeks ago when nobody was looking; not that he is the only player to have done so this year.

Rafter's catchphrase is "Sorry, mate", invariably addressed to an opponent should something untoward occur, such as tossing the ball and catching it when serving. He has even tossed a match away as a point of honour, reversing a line-call to give Russia's Andrei Cherkasov a sixth, and decisive, match point in the 1997 Australian Hard Court Championship.

So it hurt Rafter when Sampras moaned that a disputed line-call in favour of the Australian virtually cost him the final of an ATP Tour event in Cincinnati last year. That was to be the start of a run of three consecutive wins by Rafter against Sampras - including the US Open semi-final - after the American had won all but the first of their nine previous matches.

That incident in Cincinnati was at the root of a recent spat between Rafter and Sampras. While Rafter was able to laugh off John McEnroe's comment that he was a "one-Slam wonder," responding by winning the US Open a second time, he took exception to what he perceived as Sampras's reluctance to show respect to an opponent. That is what really upsets me about him," Rafter said, "and the reason why I try to piss him off as much as I can."

And where better than at Flushing Meadows? Rafter would love nothing better than to retain his title, except to add the Australian Open to it, or the French Open, or Wimbledon, and to play a part in marking the centenary of the Davis Cup by accompanying the trophy to Australia. Rafter's true desire is to satisfy his own ambitions, and those of his countrymen, rather than to spite the best player in the world.

Having vented their antipathy, Rafter and Sampras are keen to get on with the game. At least that was was the impression they gave when they happened to meet in the Cincinnati final again two weeks ago, Sampras winning in straight sets. Since then they have had more to worry about than exchanging words. Rafter has been nursing a sore shoulder, Sampras a strained hip muscle.

All being well, both will be fit and able to give their best during the coming fortnight. If so, one of them may end the last Grand Slam of the century in triumph, putting a gleam in the eyes of the statisticians.

While Sampras and Rafter contribute more to the aesthetic appeal of tennis than can be measured in facts and figures, numbers are part of the fascination. Victory for Sampras would bring him a fifth US Open championship to add to his six at Wimbledon and two at the Australian Open, nudging him ahead of Roy Emerson, the pride of Black Butt, Queensland, with a record 13 Grand Slam singles titles.

When the gigantic Arthur Ashe Stadium was inaugurated in 1997, the other big notion was that Sampras would win the title for a third year consecutively, emulating the feats of the Czech Ivan Lendl (1985-87), who later became an American citizen, and McEnroe (1979-81) in the Open era. The Sampras "Three-Pete" failed to materialise (he lost to Petr Korda in the fourth round).

Instead, Rafter began his run of 14 successive matches, defeating the world's two fastest servers in the finals, Britain's Greg Rusedksi in 1997, and Mark Philippoussis, an Australian compatriot, last year. So now there is talk of a "Pat-trick".

There is no need to remind the fourth-seeded Rafter of the perils of expectation. A year ago he came close to becoming the first defending US Open men's singles champion to lose in the first round, recovering from losing the first two sets to overcome Hicham Arazi of Morocco.

Now Rafter is preparing for an opening match against Cedric Pioline, the mercurial Frenchman who was good enough to reach the final here in 1993, and at Wimbledon in 1997, only to be deflated by Sampras in straight sets on each occasion.

Whatever befalls Rafter, he remains one of the most impressive Aussies that New York has seen since the filming of Crocodile Dundee. And his dialogue runs along similar lines. Shortly after his initial win at the US Open, Rafter said: "People are thinking that I'm some sort of genius now. But it's not as if I'm this completely new player - I'm the same old sack of crap I always was."

The American journalist Sally Jenkins once wrote an article for Sports Illustrated headlined "Is Tennis Dying?" Happily, she has discovered that characters such as Rafter tend to appear whenever the old game is in need of resuscitation.

Jenkins recently asked Rafter to explain his nickname, "Skunky". He untied his ponytail and showed her a white streak down the back of his hair. "There is another reason," chipped in Rafter's friend, Paul Kilderry, who ought to know, having coined the moniker. "He's legendary for his farts."

During a press conference at the Italian Open, your correspondent put a convoluted question to Rafter concerning his footwork on the variety of court surfaces, asking why he seemed to be less comfortable when moving on the rubberised concrete at the Australian Open than the rubberised concrete at the US Open, and was more confident on the slow clay at the French Open than Wimbledon's fast lawns, even though his game is based on attack.

The perplexed Italian interpreter looked appealingly at Rafter and said she was not sure how to translate the question. "Say whatever you like," he told her, "you're lovely."

Newcombe and Roche, the Australian tennis legends who supervise the nation's Davis Cup team, have helped Rafter galvanise his talent, given that he does not travel with a coach. Those with long memories wonder what Harry Hopman would have made of Rafter. In a word: plenty.

Hopman, the mentor of generations of great Australian players, rated Emerson his fittest pupil, not that "Emmo" was averse to a enjoying himself. Gordon Forbes, in his classic tennis book A Handful of Summers recounted Emerson's passion for singing in the shower, albeit off-key. Emmo was lost in song one time at the Italian Championships when a frustrated and weary Jaroslav Drobny arrived in the dressing-room, covered in clay after his forlorn attempt to avoid defeat.

Emmo's rendition irritated Drobny, who shouted: "Shad up. Shad up. Shad up, bloody Emerson!" The singing continued, and so did Drobny's rage. Finally, Emerson's head appeared from the shower. "What's up, Drob?" he said cheerfully. "Did you play like a xxxx, or what?" The opening line of Emmo's song still haunts the tennis locker-rooms of the world. "Many a tear has to fall, but it's all in the game."


1993 Indianapolis (concrete)

QF Rafter (7-6 6-7 7-6)

'94 Tokyo (concrete)

QF Sampras (6-1 5-7 6-1)

'95 Indian Wells (concrete)

R16 Sampras (6-4 6-7 6-1)

'96 Hong Kong (concrete)

R16 Sampras (6-3 7-6)

'97 Philadelphia (concrete)

F Sampras (5-7 7-6 6-3)

'97 Cincinnati (concrete)

R16 Sampras (7-6 6-4)

'97 Davis Cup (concrete)

SF Sampras (6-7 6-1 6-1 6-4)

'97 Grand Slam Cup (carpet)

F Sampras (6-2 6-4 7-5)

'97 ATP Tour Championship (concrete)

RR Sampras (6-4 6-1)

'98 Cincinnati (concrete)

F Rafter (1-6 7-6 6-4)

'98 US Open (concrete)

SF Rafter (6-7 6-4 2-6 6-4 6-3)

'99 World Team Cup (clay)

R6 Rafter (6-3 6-4)

'99 Cincinnati (concrete)

F Sampras (7-6 6-3)

Sampras leads series 9-4