Rafter's brilliant climb is complete Australian ace whips Rusedski in four sets to take men's crown

September 08, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- No. 13-ranked Patrick Rafter could feel what was coming. A bam-bam-bam net exchange got him his first point in what would be the last game of this U.S. Open men's championship, and Rafter pumped his fist.

When a forehand volley winner put him two points from victory, he put his hand in the air, pumped -- and waved at the crowd.

A 101-mph ace brought the Australian to match point and when he connected on a sharp cross-court forehand volley for the winning point, Rafter didn't know what to do with himself.

He fell on his back in joy and then got up and sprinted to his friends' box. There, Australian tennis legend Tony Rouche reached over and pulled him up 10 feet straight into the arms of his friends for hugs and high-fives all around.

"As soon as I won that first point, I felt pretty great," said Rafter, who beat Britain's Greg Rusedski, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, yesterday for his first Grand Slam title. "I probably shouldn't have been celebrating that hard so early, but I just couldn't control it."

And why should he? Rafter was 0-for-5 in tournament finals before this one. His beautiful serve-and-volley game was not expected to be in the championship match when this event started two weeks ago. And on top of that, no No. 13 seed had ever won any Grand Slam in the open tennis era.

Of course, it's all history now. Rafter won and when he gets up this morning he'll find himself the No. 3 player in the world, behind only No. 1 Pete Sampras and No. 2 Michael Chang -- a brilliant climb for the player who started the year at No. 63.

"It's very, very exciting," Rafter said with a smile. "Top three, oh! It's a big thrill for me just to be in this sort of company. It's such a big jump. There are great players at Numbers 4, 5 and 6 that I never would have dreamed of being ahead of. But I am. You know, it will be interesting to see how I handle it now."

In five finals this season Rafter came up short, but he began working on changing the outcome in this one Saturday night. He refused to think about it.

"This time, for the first time, it sort of sunk in to me: 'Get your mind off it,' " he said. "Continually, even when I was trying to sleep, I was thinking about the match. I just had to stop thinking. Then I fell asleep, which is a big thing for me. When you've got all those things going on, it's so hard to sleep.

"And today, I just tried to keep myself preoccupied and not on tennis at all, just doing little things. I was packing my bags, just so I could keep off tennis."

It evidently worked because, as Rusedski said, when Rafter had an opening, he took it.

"That was the difference," said Rusedski, who like Rafter, was playing in his first Grand Slam final. "I managed to take my game up a notch in the third set, and I had my openings in the fourth, but I let myself down by missing some easy high volleys and medium volleys. And I missed a lot of backhand volleys on the top of the net for a cross-court that would normally be a winner. And all the while Patrick served great and made great returns, but I just didn't make the shots I know I could have made."

And yet, this match will be remembered for the shots made by both Rafter and Rusedski. Both of them play the the entertaining serve-and-volley game. Both got 60 percent or more of their first serves in, and together combined for 80 winners, with Rafter having the best of that number, 49 to 31.

There were nearly 200 approaches to the net, with Rusedski winning 54 of 100 appearances there, while Rafter was brilliant on 68 of 95. The crowd was kept cheering for four sets, as both men showed off their shot-making skill.

Rusedski, who will be No. 11 in the rankings released today, also excited the crowd by throwing in several amazing serves. One, a tour-record 143 mph, was recorded as a service winner as Rafter got his racket on it. Another at 146 mph in the same game went long and didn't count.

"I think people know I can hit it pretty hard," Rusedski said. "And I'm sure someone will come along and hit one harder. I'd rather come here and had no record and said I won the match."

But that fell to Rafter, the 24-year-old who has the support of just about every memorable Australian who ever played.

John Newcomb, the last Australian to win here in 1973, picked him for the Australian Davis Cup team this year and virtually changed his life.

"I probably owe my whole year to Newk and Rochey," Rafter said. "They kept saying, 'You're this close, you have a little 10 percent to go, you're there.' I never, ever believed that and now I don't know what to say.

"But Newk put me on the Davis Cup team and gave me a chance."

Men's singles championship

Patrick Rafter (13) def. Greg Rusedski, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5.

Women's singles championship

Martina Hingis (1) def. Venus Williams, 6-0, 6-4.

Men's 45 doubles championship

Brian Gottfried and Sandy Mayer def. Marty Riessen and Sherwood Stewart, 7-6 (7-2), 6-1.

Boys singles championship

Arnaud di Pasquale (4), France, def. Wesley Whitehouse (3), South Africa, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-1.

Girls singles championship

Cara Black (1), Zimbabwe, def. Kildine Chevalier, France, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1, 6-3.

Pub Date: 9/08/97

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