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Autumn Sports Stud

Patrick Rafter
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by Ed Zafian

"When you win a Grand Slam title you're a marked man. You're the one they all want to beat. When I won that title I didn't think I had the game to be a grand slam winner. I just had two hot weeks. I struggled for five or six months with the expectations, with the pressure I put on myself. The most difficult thing I found after winning that Open was to back it up, to see how good you really are. It's not easy."

So, can you name the man behind the quote? It was actually Pete Sampras at this year's Stella Artois Grass Court Championships. The tournament witnessed the early dismissals of many top seeded players, including the man Sampras was speaking of, US Open defending champion, Patrick Rafter. Of his results, Rafter said: "(I feel) as flat as I have ever been in my career. I'm finding it very hard mentally at the moment. I have to find out what to do to get my motivation and confidence back."

Having observed a "pre" and "post" Rafter over the past couple of years, it is clear that the Australian is a much less happy person, and therefore player, these days. So what has happened?



Photo by Ed Zafian

Exhibit A: Two years ago, I was walking around the grounds of the ATP tour stop in Scottsdale, an intimate tournament that allows many fans within an arm's length of players. A shirtless Rafter practiced on one of the few accessible-to-the-public side courts. A few people lounged on the grass, enjoying their lunch and an opportunity to soak up some sun away from the crowds. I, likewise, was hoped to accomplish the same. Coach-less and unseeded at the tournament, Rafter was hitting with an unidentifiable player and attracted little attention for nearly twenty minutes I was present. Packing up his equipment, the Australian (like most tennis pros) sent off some radar causing a half-dozen autograph seeking kids to descend into the area. Rafter graciously signed all autographs, leaving in his path more than one asking another which player they just received an autograph from. At least as far as my line of vision could see, Rafter progressed across the grounds with little notice. Rafter would lose his match later that day to future doubles partner, Jonas Bjorkman.

Sept 19, 2000 Patrick Rafter of Australia in action during the Men's Tennis Singles, First Round at the NSW Tennis Centre on Day Four of the Sydney Olympics in Sydney Australia (Photo by Allsport)














Exhibit B: This past year, I was walking around the grounds of the Newsweek Champions Cup in Indian Wells, California. A shirtless Rafter practiced on a side court accessible to the public. People of all ages were packed in about six-deep along the fences, while other went over to bleachers to get a view from a distance. ESPN cameras were rolling as the Australian warm-upped with Carlos Moya, while Luke Jensen practiced his lines about Rafter's upcoming early round match versus a rejuvenated Andre Agassi.

Upon finishing, Rafter did his bit for the sports network and progressed to the grounds where he was met by security guards to escort him across the grounds. He crossed the grounds in what I soon dubbed "Rafter's Comet," a mass of humanity surrounding the Australian with a "tail" trailing behind. This phenomenon was repeated itself during the tournament, with myself frighteningly being on the wrong side of the oncoming locomotive of people on more than one occasion.

Later in the tournament, the bleacher seating on a side court was filled to capacity for a doubles match featuring the team of Rafter/Bjorkman. As Rafter approached, the noise level increased and some adult women were reduced to "Beatles-esque" squeals. Fellow countrymen, Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, were practicing on the next court paused to witness the lively entrance. The comrades exchanged "hey mates," but the grin on Woodbridge's face seemed to only be saying "better you than me with all of this attention." While Rafter lost early in singles in that Agassi match, him and Bjorkman went on to win the doubles title.

Photo by Ed Zafian

Rafter himself says the fun is out of his game: "Now the pressure's on. Before, it was like, Rafter will he win? Probably not. Now it's, Rafter he should be winning this match. It's a bit harder when the expectations are there." Rafter went on further to talk about life after the US Open win:

"(Winning the US Open has changed my life. I was just talking about this the other day to someone. It's not for the better; it's not me. You know, I' m not enjoying it so much. First of all, everyone notices you a lot more, especially at tournaments, everyone notices you. It's very hard to do private things that you used to do. Especially back home in Australia, it's just very difficult to relax. I mean, sure at times it's nice to have the people the limelight and things. Ninety percent of the time, you can't do what you want to do. There's just a whole lot more requests and things. I'm not a person that likes to say no, but I have to say no to a lot of things. That's the part I don't enjoy."

Can Rafter win another US Open or another Slam? A seemingly silly question, of course! What professional tennis player does not want to win one, two, ten, twenty Grand Slam titles? But it is interesting that even the official ATP Tour website recently offered up the following topic of discussion: "Your opinion of Patrick Rafter - is he truly a great player or just another `flash in the pan'?"

The real question is not IF Rafter can win another Slam but a more difficult one -- one that Rafter himself can not even probably answer -- does he really want to?
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