These are tough times for Australian sports fans. In mid-November both England and France upset the Aussie world-champion rugby team. Then Uruguay eliminated Australia from 2002 World Cup soccer competition. Last weekend brought even more disappointment. Not only did France stun the heavily favored Australian Davis Cup team in the final before 15,000 rabid fans in Melbourne, but the tie also may have been the swan song of Pat Rafter.
Rafter, as popular an athlete as Australia has known—OUR ST. PATRICK, as one fan's banner put it—has said he will take an "indefinite break" from tennis at year's end. He has denied he is retiring, but at age 28, with a bum right shoulder that hinders his serve-and-volley game, the odds of his returning aren't good. The conventional wisdom was that Rafter would help win the cup for Australia in 2001 and then go gently into that good night. "He hasn't got his name on the Davis Cup trophy yet," said Lleyton Hewitt before the tie. "I think it'll be not right if his name isn't engraved on it."
That it still isn't is largely the work of Nicolas Escud�. Indefatigable and fleet afoot, Escud� played an unlikely starring role in last weekend's drama. The only player in the original singles lineup ranked outside the top 10, he beat Hewitt, the world's No. 1-ranked player, on Friday to give the French a 1-0 lead. On Sunday, in the decisive fifth rubber, with the grass court at Rod Laver Arena resembling a grazed savanna, Escud� outlasted a fill-in opponent, Wayne Arthurs, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3, 6-3. While his shot-making was unsurpassed, Escud�'s court coverage and scrambling made the biggest impression. The tie, one might say, went to the runner. "As long as I go for every ball," he said, "I know I have a chance."
A natural lefty who learned to play tennis with his right hand, Escud�, 25, is among the most talented and erratic players on tour, capable of both breathtaking and breathtakingly bad tennis. No stranger to success at Melbourne Park, he reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in 1998. Barely a year later, his motivation dulled by the death of his father, he was out of the top 100. In 2001 he reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals, yet before last Friday he'd gone three months without winning a tour match.
Escud� has, however, been consistently strong in Davis Cup play. In the fifth rubber of France's quarterfinal tie against Switzerland this year, he was down match point in the fifth set to George Bastl. Escud� rebounded to win 8-6. With last weekend's success, his singles record in Cup play is 8-0. He will finish 2001 ranked No. 27.
Aside from Escud�'s heroics, the tie will be recalled for the questionable tactics of John Fitzgerald, the Australian captain. His first Brenlyesque gambit was to have a grass court installed atop the hard surface of Rod Laver Arena. The logic: Grass is Rafter's best surface and would shorten points, causing him less wear and tear. Problem was, grass is the worst surface for Hewitt, who had lost his last grass-court match, a five-setter at Wimbledon, to...Escud�.
Fitzgerald's bigger gaffe came on Saturday, when he panicked and substituted Hewitt and Rafter for the doubles team of Todd Woodbridge, one of the best doubles players in history, and Arthurs. The Aussies fell with little resistance to veteran serve-and-volleyer C�dric Pioline and crafty junkballer Fabrice Santoro. Discussing his decision after the match, Fitzgerald said, "There's a very fine line between genius and idiot, isn't there?" Then it was revealed that Rafter, who had beaten S�bastien Grosjean on Friday, was feeling too much pain in his right arm to play singles again.
On Sunday, Hewitt made fast work of Grosjean. Fitzgerald had to summon the 64th-ranked Arthurs to face Escud�. Rafter could only look on dejectedly as Arthurs fought gamely but lost to a superior player. "We took a risk in doubles, and it didn't work, but it was a risk we had to take," said Rafter, explaining that after feeling soreness in his arm on Saturday morning he knew he had only one more match in him, and he agreed with Fitzgerald that Australia should go for the jugular in the doubles.
Escud� is preternaturally calm during his matches, but he erupted on Sunday evening. When he alighted from his teammates' shoulders, he chased them around the grass, dousing them with champagne. "It's amazing," he said. "It's like a fairly tale." One that didn't end happily ever Rafter.