THE INTERVIEW PATRICK RAFTER; Tennis: Straight down the line

With a game to match his character, a regular Aussie prepares to defend his title.
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The Independent Online
BE ASSURED that when the tennis begins in the US Open in New York tomorrow the defending men's champion will be there, aching bloody shoulder or not. That's the message from Patrick Rafter, who pulled out of a tournament in Indianapolis 10 days ago and spent last week at his Bermuda home instead of playing a pre-Open event in Long Island.

"Oh yeah, mate, I'll be playing," was the genial Australian's prompt answer to an anxious enquiry about the state of his health. "Even if my shoulder is worse than it was at Indianapolis, the US Open is too big a priority for me." But being a proper dinkum Aussie (straight as well as genial), Rafter does not rate highly his chances of a third successive title at Flushing Meadows. "Not the way the shoulder is right now. Playing best of five sets, it's got to be pretty well 100 per cent. Ninety per cent, anyway."

The 26-year-old Queenslander has tendinitis in the shoulder of his serving arm. It has been bothering him since the French Open in May, though he got to the Wimbledon semi-finals and was runner-up to Pete Sampras earlier this month at Cincinnati. "I only feel the pain on the serve," he explained. "I can hit it flat but I lose the kick on the serve and it's hard to get width and heaviness.

"It's just the result of too much tennis over the last three years. I haven't given myself a good enough break. Apart from a little knee problem at the end of last year I really have been injury-free. But this thing has stuck with me now for three months and it's starting to become more of a factor." After New York, Rafter is committed to Australia's Davis Cup semi-final against Russia in late September and has then promised himself a rest to get the shoulder right. He hopes to get back for the final of the Davis Cup at the close of the season. "If we do happen to win, it will make this a very, very long year."

No change there, then. Since gatecrashing the top table of tennis with his 1997 US Open success Rafter has responded to public demand and made himself available, too available. At the end of 1998 that knee problem persuaded him to pull out of the ATP Tour World Championships, for which he had qualified, to rest. "To me, the money's not a factor," he insisted. "You've got to think about your health and your body first."

Then, in the next breath, he is conceding that 2000 looks like being "an absolute nightmare of a year," with the Sydney Olympics an added factor in an already crowded programme. Rafter does not think tennis belongs in the Olympic Games - "but, mate, I am looking forward to the opportunity of representing Australia and walking out on the track with all those great athletes." So, shoulder permitting, another crowded year looms.

With Rafter, it is not only the number of tournaments he plays but the way he plays them. He is an Aussie in the tradition of Merv Hughes and Rod Marsh. You can knock him down but you haven't knocked him out. He tends to fix bayonet and charge, even though the bloke on the other side might be holding an Armalite. The French Open is a prime example. On slow clay requiring baseline patience Rafter simply serves and volleys.

Two years ago that technique propelled him to the semi-finals but, practised year-long, it can be a punishing prospect and he is now starting to pay the price for his insistence on gung-ho tennis. "I don't know what it's like to stay back," Rafter admits cheerfully.

"My goal for this year was to have a more relaxed time because the last two years were very intense and very tough." Then, having lost eight of his first 15 matches in 1999, Rafter decided relaxing was not his style and revved up again.

The spectacular nature of his recent success, following years on the satellite circuit, is what fuels him. After turning pro in 1991 he went three years before his first tournament victory, on grass in Manchester. His second win, another three years on, was the US Open. But, as the seventh youngest of the nine children born to Jim and Jocelyn Rafter in the bleak copper mining town of Mount Isa, Pat was, as he says, "kept level" in the matter of humility, though he acknowledges a temper lurks beneath that equable exterior.

"Sometimes I boil over a little bit. I only let out half of it, but you should see the other half that's inside me. As a kid I used to throw my racket over the fence, that sort of thing. I never liked losing." Half a dozen years ago your correspondent was witness as Rafter meandered away from the main court at Indian Wells after an early loss, stopped to tread on his racket and then popped the shattered pieces into a waste bin, nodding politely as a security guard expressed the hope that he was having a nice day.

Pete Sampras is one who has been singed by the Rafter temper. When he was asked, after losing to him in the 1998 Cincinnati final, what was the difference between them, Sampras snapped: "Ten Grand Slams." That was rapidly reduced to nine as Rafter beat him in the US Open semi-finals and took the title. Rafter savaged Pete for "lack of respect" and admitted: "I get an incredible amount of enjoyment from being on top of him and annoying him. But I don't like to be enemies with anyone. There are no bad feelings between us, never have been."

In his modesty and sheer mateyness, Rafter is a throwback to the great Aussie generation of Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe, Fred Stolle and Tony Roche, when the slightest hint of big-headedness was slapped down by the others. Any remote chance of Rafter getting out of line is monitored by Newcombe, his Davis Cup captain and adviser, and Roche, his occasional coach, while his habit of using his brothers as agent and travelling companions provides further restraint.

That said, the family were mighty proud when in July - just before he reached No 1 in the rankings for a brief week - Rafter was voted Most Respected Person in Australia. After years of "sexiest" and "best legs" awards from magazines, this was something to savour.

Possibly the voters were reacting to Rafter's generosity. He started the Patrick Rafter Cherish the Children Foundation, donated $300,000 of his 1997 US Open winnings to a hospital for terminally ill children and gave $180,000 of last year's prize money from the same event to a Brisbane hospital. He lives in a simple, two-bedroom condominium in Bermuda, rides around on a moped and admits his most luxurious purchase so far has been a car for his mother.

"In the grand scheme of things you've got to be a good person," he says. "There is no substitute for that. I don't take anything for granted. Demanding things is not the way to go, it's a very selfish way. You see that a lot in sports and it annoys the shit out of me."

Australia, which especially cherishes modest champions, loved it when Rafter said he was capable of playing great tennis but would never be a great player. And the nation clasped him to its bosom after a Davis Cup tie in Adelaide in 1997.

The Aussies had clinched a winning 3-0 lead over the Czech Republic by the second day and went out to celebrate. Next day, after his dead rubber, Rafter told the world he had won while still drunk and was instantly elevated to True Australian Hero status.

The tendency to say what he thinks is one of Rafter's most endearing qualities. Paid appearance money of $75,000 to play in the Lyon tournament in October 1997, he returned the cheque when he lost in the first round, telling the organisers he did not see why he should be paid if he had done a poor job. Newcombe fears Rafter's humility could yet prove harmful, but thinks he knows why. "Pat is genuinely concerned that he comes out the other side of this adventure the same person who went in."

Patrick Rafter, rejoicer in the nickname Skunky (because of the streak of white hair at the back of his scalp), would not disagree. Asked, after his first US Open win, what his next ambition was, he smiled: "To stay the same old sack of crap that I have always been."