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Rafter Grandly Slams U.S. Open Criticism

September 14, 1998|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Patrick Rafter could have turned this Grand Slam into confinement, retreating into a self-protective shell as defending champion at the U.S. Open.

A sea of doubt was out there. One former Open champion, John McEnroe, said the 25-year-old Australian was a one-Slam wonder. Another Open champion and the top-seeded player, Pete Sampras, said that the difference between himself and Rafter was 10 Grand Slams.

Now it's nine.

The third-seeded Rafter defended his title in commanding fashion--committing an incredibly low five unforced errors--as he defeated countryman Mark Philippoussis, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-0, in the Open final Sunday. His serve was broken only once and he double-faulted once.

Naturally, Rafter was asked about McEnroe's comments and Sampras' statement that a player has to come back and win a title again to be considered great. Rafter beat Sampras in five sets in the semifinals.

"Maybe you can ask him [Sampras] that question, if he thinks that now," Rafter said. "For me, I won another Slam, and it hasn't sunk in yet. It's very, very exciting for me, especially to repeat it."

Here's how stressed Rafter was off the court the last few days:

He went to a Pearl Jam rock concert--calling it one of the best ever--on Thursday, did not practice on Thursday and hit barely for a half-hour on Friday. After one match, he said he was planning on kicking back with a beer.

Three hours before Sunday's final, Rafter sat on the sofa in the lobby of his midtown Manhattan hotel, surrounded by his tennis gear and flipping through pictures. He was relaxed and approachable. Asked if he was hanging in there, Rafter nodded as though it was any other day.

So, how many other players would be relaxing in a hotel lobby in full view a few short hours before a Slam final?

Here's how stressed Rafter was on the court during the final:

Only five unforced errors coming from a risk-taking, serve-and-volley player is rare. There are no official records, but McEnroe had only two unforced errors in his straight-set demolition of Jimmy Connors in the 1984 Wimbledon final. For more perspective, Mats Wilander committed eight in the 1988 French Open final against Henri Leconte. Additionally, Wilander missed only one first serve the entire match, putting in 72 of 73.

"This year, I was just cruising, it was like another match for me," Rafter said. "I played it like it was another match. I had five unforced errors and nerves never played an issue in today's match because of the experience."

Playing Philippoussis made it easier for Rafter, a fact he could not explain.

"If anything, it made me more relaxed," he said. "It didn't make me nervous at all. It had a calming effect." Philippoussis declared himself a new player, a new man, after he fought off three match points in the quarterfinals against Thomas Johansson of Sweden. He faltered a bit against Carlos Moya of Spain in the semifinals but survived.

There were a few signs of the old Philippoussis in the third and fourth sets. He dropped the third set, losing his serve at 15 in the eighth game, double-faulting twice in that game.

The turning point came earlier in the set. At 2-2, Rafter squandered a 40-0 lead on his serve and tossed his racket when he netted a forehand volley when Philippoussis pulled to deuce. Rafter held to go up 3-2 and broke Philippoussis in the next game.

The point of the match occurred in that game at deuce. Rafter tracked down a smash and made another incredible get, retrieving a cross-court forehand. The point finished as the two traded volleys, with Philippoussis finally netting one. Then Rafter broke him on the next point.

"That was a bad choice of shot for myself," he said. "Pat is very quick around the court. Things happen like this. A point like that can decide the set, even the match."

Though Philippoussis fell apart--he was broken at love in the second game of the fourth set and double-faulted on match point--he looked at the positives of his best Grand Slam finish.

"This is the start of something in my career," he said. "I'm only 21. I'm definitely hoping and counting on having a lot more Sundays in Grand Slams. This will make me work a lot harder. Sometimes, it's good--like I said, things happen for a reason in life. It was good maybe today that I lost.

Rafter almost lost in the opening round to Hicham Arazi of Morocco, losing the first two sets and facing two break points in the third. He survived and thought about the Arazi match on Sunday.

"That's what I was thinking when I was sitting down at the change," Rafter said. "Nodding to myself, thinking, 'This is not right. I should be at home right now.' "

But he wasn't, and now there's a new nickname for Rafter: The two-Slam wonder.

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