ueenslander Patrick Rafter will always look back on 1997 as his breakthrough year when he burst into the big time.
Treading water at 62nd placed in the world at the end of 1996, Rafter’s career was at the crossroads as he headed into his seventh year on the international circuit.
The roller coaster year kicked off in January during the Australian Hardcourt Championship in Adelaide. At a critical time in the second set tiebreaker against Andrei Cherkasov, Rafter reversed a line call that virtually gave the match to the Russian. Rafter was awarded the Diploma of Honor for his sportsmanship by the Committee for Fair Play, founded by French legend Jean Borotra.
A lot was expected of Rafter as the nation’s "pin up" boy at the Australian Open in Melbourne, but it was not to be – Rafter bundled out in the first round by 10th seed Albert Costa, in straight sets.
Stung into action in February at Sydney’s White City, Rafter came from two sets down to beat Frenchman Cedric Pioline in the opening singles of the Davis Cup World Group first round. The sensational win kick-started the Australians on the way to a comprehensive 4-1 win.
In March, Patrick Rafter reached the final of the Advanta Championship in Philadelphia, losing to the world’s number one Pete Sampras. In April, another losing appearance in an ATP final, this time to Michael Chang in Hong Kong.
In May, Rafter reached his third final of the year at the Internationaler Raiffeisen Grand Prix in St. Polden, won by Marcel Filippini.
The Rafter rise continued in the French Open at Roland Garros, with a first time semi final appearance against twice champion Sergi Bruguera. Rafter lost a tough four-setter 6-7 6-1 7-5 7-6.
Compatriot Todd Woodbridge ended Rafter’s Wimbledon bid with a four set win in the round of 16, but Rafter was looking more confident with each outing.
August was the turning point month. On August 17, yet another ATP final, beaten by Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the Pilot Pen International in New Haven. A fortnight later in Boston, another losing final, this time to Carlos Moya at Long Island in the Hamlet Cup. Rafter could have been forgiven for thinking he was doomed to a bridesmaid’s role after losing five finals on the trot, but the gritty Australian never gave it a thought, and what a time for the big breakthrough - the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows.
Seeded "lucky" 13, Rafter started his campaign with a sensational straight sets win over tough-to-beat Andre Medvedev. Two slashing straight sets successes over Swede Magnus Norman and Frenchman Lionel Roux shot Rafter into the round of 16, and a head-to-head with former champion Andre Agassi.
In a classic four setter, Rafter chalked his first win over the American. Another straight sets win at Magnus Larsson’s expense and Patrick Rafter was into his second Grand Slam semi of the year - second seed Michael Chang was waiting.
With his serve-volley game at its peak, Patrick Rafter cruised home 7-6 6-4 6-2 for his day of destiny with bazooka-serving Brit Greg Rusedski - both first timers in a Grand Slam final.
In a drama-charged shootout, the drought was over. Rafter survived some nail-biting moments before lifting aloft the U.S. Open trophy with a 6-3 6-2 4-6 7-5 success - the first Australian to win the U.S. open since John Newcombe in 1973, and the first Australian to win a Grand Slam singles crown since Pat Cash at Wimbledon, a decade earlier.
The August rush of ranking points clinched a lucrative year’s end ATP Tour World Championship berth in Hannover, the first Aussie appearance in the tournament since Cash in 1987. Rafter finished fourth among the world’s top eight behind Pete Sampras, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Jonas Bjorkman - but the Queenslander had made his mark.
Patrick Rafter celebrated his 25th birthday on December 28 by jumping 60 places up the ATP Tour Rankings in 1997 from 62 to 2, a feat bettered only by five players in the history of rankings which started in 1968 - Pete Sampras jumped 76 spots in 1990, Sergi Bruguera 73 in 1997, Corrado Barazzutti 71 in 1978, Jonas Bjorkman 65 in 1997 and Mats Wilander 62 in 1982.
By any standards it was a vintage year for the very popular Pat Rafter who has his own in-built supporter’s group as the third youngest of nine kids in the Bill and Jocelyn Rafter family of six boys and three girls - by far the largest family among those playing the ATP circuit. Some of his brothers and sisters act as coach, agent and organising his busy schedule.
Surprisingly, Rafter is a very private person. Quite often he’ll slip away for a round of golf, but his great sporting love outside the court is the water - fishing, board riding or simply relaxing on the beach is high on the Rafter list of priorities. One of his theories of life is - "Try and get most out of what you’re given and enjoy the moment".
But there is another side to the Mount Isa born Patrick Rafter - his genuine love of selected charities. One of the best kept secrets to recently come to light was his $400,000 donation through the Starlight Foundation to Brisbane’s Royal Children’s Hospital after his U.S. Open win to build a hospital wing for seriously ill kids, and he is also the spokesman for Coastcare, an environmental organisation in Australia funding community groups to care for local beaches.
As he was voted one of the Sexiest Men Alive by People magazine last year, Patrick’s admirers will be heartbroken to discover that the Bermuda based heartthrob is happily dating London based Australian model Lara Feltham, aged 27.
Patrick was born on December 28th, 1972 and this year, aged 25, signed a lucrative 3 year contract with Reebok and has other sponsorship with Fox Sports and Prince racquets.
Home for the past 4 years has been Bermuda where he owns a plush hilltop apartment overlooking the island’s main harbour.
Patrick enjoys eating at his local Italian restaurant and playing golf in a weekly tournament when he can, with Greg Norman being one of his sporting heroes. He also enjoys having the odd ice-cold beer after the games are over with his mates as is a regular Australian habit.
His favourite rock bands include Pearl Jam and U2.
When asked if last year’s victory had changed him, he said "I’m still the same sack of crap."
His hates are false people and braggarts.
For the girls, his height is 1.85m and his weight is 79kg.
There’s a lot to Patrick Rafter, on and off the court. Long may that be the case.
STOP PRESS! - Patrick Rafter is through to the final of the 1998 U.S. Open after beating Pete Sampras in the semi final. Patrick meets fellow Aussie Mark Philippoussis in the showdown, being the first all-Australian final since 1970.
STOP PRESS! - Patrick Rafter has WON the 1998 U.S. Open championship, after defeating compatriot Mark Philippoussis in the first All-Australian final since 1970. Rafter defeated names like Sampras on the way to taking his second consecutive U.S. Open Crown.
In February 1999, the Pat Rafter Cherish The Children Foundation was announced, to be run by his sister Louise.
Compiled by David Lord, ABC NewsRadio Sportscaster, Sporting Promoter & Trivia:
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