Work in Sports
Rafter's much more than a pretty face
Posted: Wednesday July 05, 2000 07:23 PM
By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated
On an overcast day, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi inched closer to a Must See TV final on Sunday by beating a game Jan-Michael Gambill and a less game Mark Philippoussis, respectively. But let's zig where the others zag and discuss another winning quarterfinalist.
Pat Rafter was hailed by one of the British papers last week as the closest player men's tennis has to Anna Kournikova: a stop-traffic attractive player who induces goo-goo eyes and catcalls from fans of the opposite sex. It's true that when the guy changes his shirt, you get an idea of what it was like to have been at the first Beatles' concert at Candlestick Park. But once the hormones of the surrounding female fans settle back down, the comparisons between Rafter and Ms. Only-The-Balls-Should-Bounce essentially end there.
For one, no one begrudges Rafter his good looks, since, despite them, he is impossibly down to earth. Last week Rafter was asked about the comportment of Australian athletes; he explained that they're either laid back or considered "d---heads." He's decidedly in the former camp. While Kournikova often regards the public and the good folks in the media much as she would dandruff on her shoulders, Rafter is a man of the people. He'll sign autographs until his fingers are callused, he'll pretend to care when fans tell him where they were when he won his back-to-back U.S. Opens, he'll play the crowd and shoot straight. At a recent press conference Rafter was grilled about Sampras' recent string of injuries and about Jelena Dokic's sacking of coach Tony Roche . Instead of showing his annoyance at the hardball questions, Rafter said disarmingly, "Man, you guys are hammering me" before giving a thoughtful, few-holds-barred response. Compare this to Kournikova, who appears genetically incapable of giving anything other than a disgusted one-word answer to questions not immediately related to her last match.
What's more, as a tennis player Rafter is no mere pretty face. Aside from having won two Grand Slams, he has been ranked No.1 and is perhaps the most accomplished active player after Sampras and Agassi. Rafter's stature made the start of his year particularly frustrating. After undergoing rotator cuff surgery on his serving shoulder, he returned to the Tour in the spring with a game that lacked bite. His serve had lost snap; he still played with soreness; his confidence wavered. A string of patchy results followed and, loud and clear, Rafter heard the murmurs that he was through. "I don't think I ever got so down I thought seriously of packing it up then and there," he told me after losing in the third round of the French Open. "But there were some low, low moments."
The ship started to change course last month. Playing on grass, a surface that complements Rafter's athleticism and his exquisite volleying, he won his first event of the year at Rosemalen the day before Wimbledon commenced. With a charitable seeding of 12, he has continued on here. After handling Thomas Johansson in the fourth round, Rafter made fast work of jittery qualifier Alexander Popp, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6, in the quarters. After dropping off the map, Rafter's back to precisely where he was a year ago: a semifinal date with Agassi. "People probably haven't expected me to do as well because I've showed no real signs of doing well after the shoulder surgery," he says. "So it's very satisfying."
Rafter seems to be getting his mojo back. Even Agassi has taken note that his next opponent has suddenly elevated his game back to where it once belonged. "No question [Rafter's] game has picked up lately," says the second seed. The trend will have to continue for Rafter to have a good chance against Agassi on Friday. Sure, Rafter has played some tremendous serve-and-volley tennis lately. But he has yet to face the kind of opponent who can short-hop 130 mph serves -- as Agassi did Wednesday against Philippoussis -- and tattoo the lines with passing shots. "You hope Andre has one of his bad days," says Rafter. No one's counting on it. But then again, no one counted on Rafter being back in tennis' rarefied air either.
Vladimir Voltchkov, the 1996 Wimbledon junior champ, entered the qualifying draw two weeks ago ranked No. 237 in the world. On Wednesday he advanced to the semis, beating Byron Black in straight sets. Three former junior champs have gone on to win the big trophy: Bjorn Borg, Pat Cash and Stefan Edberg . ... Richard Williams -- get this -- has reversed course. He won't be going to his acquaintance's acquaintance funeral tomorrow after all. If Venus and Serena demand his presence, he'll be at their match. Tomorrow's headliners beat Mariaan DeSwardt and Martina Navratilova in doubles Wednesday. ... There are no Americans left in either the boys' or girls' singles draws.
Sports Illustrated staff writer Jon Wertheim will be filing daily reports from Wimbledon.