Rafter's pain soothed by Roche

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The Independent Online
So much about Pat Rafter is top quality, from the gutsy athleticism of his game to the appeal of his easy-going nature, that it came as no surprise to hear him describe his latest ailment as "classic tendinitis".

So much about Pat Rafter is top quality, from the gutsy athleticism of his game to the appeal of his easy-going nature, that it came as no surprise to hear him describe his latest ailment as "classic tendinitis".

Yesterday, as the organisers of the Ericsson Open rescheduled the programme after a thunderstorm virtually washed out the previous night's matches, Rafter was able to rest his troublesome right wrist before preparing to explode back into action in the semi-finals today.

To reach this point before the rains came, Rafter dispatched Roger Federer, the talented, 19-year-old Swiss, 6-3, 6-1, in less than an hour, and then, as a precaution, he withdrew from the doubles event, in which he had partnered Lleyton Hewitt, an Australian compatriot.

Federer was not pleased. "My serve just didn't work, and Rafter could do whatever he wanted with it," he said. "I think he played well, but my performance was really bad." It was just as well, then, that the 28-year-old Rafter was not fully fit.

"It is an injury that I have been able to maintain, but it is progressively getting slightly worse," Rafter said. "I don't want to deal with it right now in the doubles and risk sacrificing a possible result in my favour in the semi-finals." Never more popular than when he reached the Wimbledon's men's singles final last year after a splendid performance against Andre Agassi in the semis, Rafter's goal is to qualify for the Masters Cup in Sydney in November, hoping at the same time that Australia reach the Davis Cup final again. He then intends take "an indefinite break" from tennis in response to nagging reminders from a dodgy shoulder and wrist.

While coping with pain, Rafter has played some of the best groundstroke tennis of his career, for which he thanks two of his Australian mentors, John Newcombe and Tony Roche.

"Last year when we were in Marbella for two weeks, training for the Davis Cup final in Barcelona, we worked four hours a day on the court just hitting groundstrokes," Rafter recalled. "It added another enjoyable dimension to my game, something for me to go back to if things aren't working with my strengths. Right now I feel very confident with my all-court game." Having defeated Agassi in five sets at Wimbledon, Rafter was on the wrong end of the score after going the full distance with the Las Vegan again in the semi-finals of the Australian Open in Melbourne in January. "I was playing really well and couldn't ask for a better match," Rafter said. "We were playing great tennis and it was fun being out there ­ it was just disappointing to cave in the way I did." There was a time when Rafter preferred to travel without a permanent coach, content to contact Newcombe and Roche when needing advice. Lately, however, Roche has been by his side at most of the important tournaments, imparting the wisdom accumulated during a lengthy playing career at the top level and from coaching Ivan Lendl, the ultimate professional.

"I respect Tony like a brother or like a father," Rafter said. "His dedication and commitment to me has been superb. To have done what he has done with me, I think he is the greatest coach in the world.

"He is very calming, he is positive, and he is good tactically as well. He will tell you one or two little things, but he doesn't try and fill your mind with a lot of things. He is simple, and it keeps your mind clear." It also helps that Rafter and Roche are socially compatible. "We are good mates," Rafter said. "Tony is not travelling that much. He will do the swing from the French Open through to Wimbledon, and then he will be off for quite a while again. So we are not seeing a hell of a lot of each other. When we do, it is great to see him and hang out.

"He is a food fellow to hang out with, easy going, good to be around. I like go for a beer with him." Fellow ATP tourists say much the same about Rafter.

* The Australian player Mark Philippoussis will undergo knee surgery in the United States which is expected to keep him out for two more months after aggravating an old injury. Philippoussis said in a statement released by Tennis Australia yesterday that he would be operated on in Florida after tearing a cartilage in his left knee.