The small white circle that was clearly visible on the top of Pat Rafter's head yesterday was not the work of an errant pigeon and not some last hoorah of a fashion statement. "Don't worry, it's not a vanity thing," said the amiable Australian, who lost to Pete Sampras in the final last year and could well be playing his last Wimbledon. "It's a bit of grey hair."
If it expanded during his match against Slava Dosedel of the Czech Republic, who was dispatched in four sets, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, then the reason probably had more to do with what the 28-year-old will do when his playing days are over than any problems he faced on the court. He conceded the first set yesterday, certainly, but there was little doubt from the second set onwards that he would progress. And Olivier Rochus of Belgium, the No 3 seed's opponent in the third round, should not present too many difficulties either, even if he now faces the added pressure of expectation.
"I guess when you first come here, you're not really a contender. That was the case for me," he said. "So I'd always enjoy myself in London. You could always go to the pubs, couldn't you? Now it's not like that anymore. It's strictly business, do what you have to do to get to the next round. It's very professional now. I feel pressure now, whereas before I didn't." Is he concerned about the future and a retirement that seems ever more inevitable given the injury problems he has encountered in the last few years? These have included a shoulder problem that required surgery, and more recently, tendinitis in the wrist. "It's my decision and I know where I'm going with it," he said, without telling us exactly where that was. "It's just what's right for me." For the moment he is not thinking further ahead than this tournament. "It could be the last time, so I just want to make the most of it."
On yesterday's evidence, Rafter still has the ability and will to make the most of it, even if he did have his service broken in the match's opening game and then go on to lose the set. "I wasn't quite sure how he was going to play," Rafter said. "That sort of tightened me up a little bit because I didn't know what he was going to do, what his weaknesses were, what his strengths were. I was really trying just to study him in the first couple of sets."
He actually seemed to "free up" earlier than that, serving well at the end of the first set and the start of the second (winning 16 consecutive points on his serve) and showing plenty of movement and some decent vision to win some relatively lengthy rallies. By the end he was cruising. "It's good to finish on a good note."
There will be plenty of people who would be happy to see Rafter end his career in a similar fashion, not least the man himself. "I'd love to have another crack at Sampras," he said. "That'd mean I was in the final. I'd love to back there."
Before that comes the game against Rochus, scheduled for tomorrow, for which his preparations certainly won't include watching Australia take on the Lions in the first rugby Test in the morning. "I don't want to get too pumped up," he said. "I don't want to come down here if they lose and try to beat up some English guy." As if he would, the mild-mannered, greying old-timer that he is.Reuse content