As the seventh of nine children, keeping his feet on the ground should have been the least of Pat Rafter's problems. But for years, up to and including 1997, when he won his first US Open and reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros, they were the reason for his largely indifferent performances at Wimbledon.
During that time, Rafter had convinced himself, if not the sceptics who believed his serve and volley game was perfect for Wimbledon, that he could never keep his footing on grass, and could only play his best tennis on hard courts.
It turns out Rafter was right, even if he did not know why. The problem: barely a quarter of the sole of his foot was in contact with the grass as he advanced to the net after a serve. When he went to push off either foot to intercept a return, Rafter had neither traction nor power. He could get away with it on hard or clay courts, but not on grass.
"It was like a car going around a corner on two wheels," said Mark Waters.
Waters worked with Rafter as a physical trainer for four years from the start of 1997, and now works with another Australian, Wayne Arthurs. Before Rafter, he had spent time with the doubles maestros Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge. With a university degree in human movement, specialising in bio-mechanics, and a lifetime of participation in sports as diverse as Australian Rules football, both rugby codes, field hockey, basketball, gymnastics and the decathlon, Waters was accustomed to looking at the significant details of a much larger picture.
In Rafter, he saw a net-rusher whose approach was the opposite of flat-footed. As he followed his serve in, it was almost as though he was on tiptoes. Waters estimated that less than 25 per cent of the soles of Rafter's shoes had contact with the ground.
With his heels elevated in this way, the calf muscles, which provide explosive movement forward or sideways, could not be properly utilised. If, for instance, Rafter lunged for a backhand volley, his only point of contact with the ground would have been the inside edge of the ball of his right foot. This, in turn, inhibited both his range and reflexes at the net.
"We went over and over with footwork and movement, getting him to realise it was OK to have his heels down." In that respect, it was little different from the work that goes into rebuilding, say, a serve, or, for that matter, a golf swing. "It was a matter of getting him relaxed with that new feeling, so that it became instinctive," Waters said.
Waters had played just about every sport of note, except, as it happens, tennis. For players like Woodforde, he carried an Australian football to supplement everyday training. With Rafter, he developed drills using a volleyball to further sharpen what was already highly-developed natural agility and recovery skills from sometimes contorted, post-volley positions.
Over time, the rest of Pat Rafter's feet began to brush the surface. "There's a subtle difference," Waters said.
It was, he added, only a small thing, less important that the coaching input he receives from Tony Roche, the experience of reaching Grand Slam semi-finals and finals on a regular basis, and the renewed strength in his surgically-repaired right shoulder.
On grass, at the net, he is at once more settled, yet more explosive; more relaxed and with quicker reflexes. Waters likens it to the difference between trying to lift a heavy weight with fingers alone or with the upper body.
It was only a small thing, he repeated. But for Rafter, it was like the last tumbler of a combination lock falling into place.Reuse content