It will take a vantage point more distant than the U.S. Davis Cup team's 4-1 victory over Australia last weekend in Washington, D.C., to gauge the talent of surprise U.S. Open winner Patrick Rafter. Is he going to stay near the summit of the tennis world or is he just a genial bloke whose excellent adventure ended 12 days after he celebrated his first Grand Slam victory?
As tennis players go, Rafter, whose Open performance vaulted him from No. 14 to No. 3 in the world rankings, is a rib-tickling rarity—a swashbuckling personality with movie-star looks who plays a nearly extinct serve-and-volley game. During his Open run, there were scads of stories about Rafter's improved play in 1997, the pinup calendar he posed for back in Australia and his fondness for frat-boy antics and partying. (Rafter says that one of the highlights of his post-Open victory bash was "the cake fight.") But the suggestion that Rafter, on the basis of one fortnight's play, was close to bumping off Pete Sampras for the No. 1 spot was a notion that Sampras and No. 2-ranked Michael Chang, his singles opponents in last week's tie, regarded with knowing smiles from the moment they arrived in D.C.
Sampras is still the best player of all time, his recent fourth-round flameout at Flushing Meadow notwithstanding. And Chang had proven he's the most hard-minded competitor on tour long before Rafter upset him in the Open semifinals. So it was no surprise, really, that when Chang needed something extra to close out his 6-4, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Rafter last Friday, he produced back-to-back aces—somehow summoning enough power from his 5'8" frame to scorch one past Rafter at 126 mph. On Sunday, Sampras was even more merciless during his four-set win. Later, Rafter talked about the experience with slack-jawed wonder.
As talented as Rafter is, he is also a neophyte who was so excited about his Open victory that he forgot to pick up his $650,000 winner's check before he left the grounds. ("What do we do?" his brother and business manager, Steve, anxiously asked a U.S. tennis official the next day. "We'll wire it," the official soothingly replied.) "All week long I've been trying to get back that feeling I had for those two weeks at the Open," Rafter confessed in a quiet moment last Saturday. "But sometimes I look back on it and I still think. Was that really me?"
Lost amid the high-profile pursuit of Roger Maris's home run record by the St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire (page 40) is the milestone—one more rare than a .400 batting average—reached by another slugger this season. With 401 total bases through Sunday, Colorado Rockies outfielder Larry Walker has become just the 22nd player to surpass the 400 mark and the first National Leaguer to do so since the Milwaukee Braves' Hank Aaron, in 1959. (The last American Leaguer to accomplish the feat was Jim Rice of the Boston Red Sox, in '78.) With 17 total bases in his final six games, Walker would tie Joe DiMaggio for 10th on the alltime list. Of course, Babe Ruth's record of 457, set in 1921, remains totally out of sight.
The Champ Returns
Muhammad Ali, who hasn't lived in Louisville since 1962, has long had an uneasy relationship with his hometown over issues of race and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Last week the Louisville Lip, now 55 and ravaged by Parkinson's syndrome, made a rare visit there to lend his presence to the inaugural Ali Cup. The week-long international amateur boxing tournament, which drew competitors from 21 countries, came to a rousing climax last Saturday at Freedom Hall, when celebrities such as Natalie Cole, James Earl Jones and Evander Holyfield paid tribute to Ali before a cheering throng of 11,000, an indication that the champ and the city may at last be coming to terms.
Ali spent much of the week signing autographs, posing for pictures and. with the help of his wife, Lonnie, going on-line to answer questions posed to him on the Louisville Courier-Journal Web site. Responding to news reports that some 3,000 of his personal artifacts—from fight trunks to a Golden Gloves trophy to one of his letters to the local draft board—will be auctioned by Christie's in Los Angeles on Oct. 19 without his approval, Ali said, "Somebody stole my stuff. Over the years people around me took things. I want all my stuff."
Some of the items came from the home of Ali's father, Cassius Clay Sr., who died in 1990, and were sold to a collector by Rahaman Ali, Muhammad's younger brother. When asked about the items, Rahaman told The Courier-Journal, "I will gladly tell you what you want, but you have to give me some money. If you can't, the hell with it."