Sound of a Slam echoes for Rafter Open final mastery earns special place

September 14, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Patrick Rafter is only a year older than he was when he won his first U.S. Open, but yesterday, when he became only the sixth man in the modern era to defend an Open title successfully, his celebration was that of a veteran.

There were no wild gestures. No sprint to his friends' box. No tears.

This time, when Rafter's Australian compatriot, Mark Philippoussis, double-faulted on match point in the fourth set to hand him a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-0 victory, Rafter simply smiled and walked to the net for a handshake and some back-patting.

"It's not quite as euphoric -- is that the word? I know what it means, just not how to say it," said Rafter, who had heard John McEnroe and Pete Sampras sling barbs his way.

Before the Open, McEnroe had called him a "one-Slam wonder." And before losing to Rafter in the semifinals, Sampras had said: "I look at a guy as a great player if he can come back and do it again, not if he does it once."

Rafter, who now joins Sampras, McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg as back-to-back winners, could smile at the memory.

"Perhaps you can ask Pete what he thinks now," said Rafter. "But this is very satisfying. I now feel that last year wasn't such a fluke, that people won't look at me as a fluke. Maybe I can consolidate and kick on."

The match was the first all-Australian final at the Open in 28 years, and it was greeted with enthusiasm by the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium. At least a half-dozen Australian flags could be spotted around the court. Traditional Aussie chants could be heard on changeovers.

And the tennis the fans witnessed was, at times, spectacular.

Rafter and Philippoussis made incredible shots. Only twice did they rally from the baseline. And Rafter had just five unforced errors.

No records of such things are kept, but Rafter's performance reminded veteran tennis officials of McEnroe's 1984 Wimbledon

victory over Connors, in which he had only two errors.

"You've got to hand it to Pat," said a dejected Philippoussis. "He's playing the best tennis in the world. In that fourth set, I didn't do anything that much wrong, except for a few double-faults.

"He was just hitting a lot of passing shots and making me volley a lot from my shoelaces, a lot of hard volleys. He was just playing great tennis."

Philippoussis was obviously nervous in the opening set. He dropped his first service game. After that, he and Rafter played point-for-point. At the end of the second set, they were even, at one set each.

It was then that the two took part in one of the most entertaining sets seen at the Open in a long time. It was Australian-bred, serve-and-volley, chip-and-charge exhibition.

Rafter, indeed, was having the best of it, but Philippoussis was holding on. He fought off two break points in Game 2 and made Rafter sigh in disappointment at not getting a break chance in Game 4.

But in the sixth game, the players participated in a point that seemed to break Philippoussis' spirit. The 21-year-old had held off Rafter, four years his senior, on three more break points before coming to the second deuce.

It was then that Philippoussis hit an overhead that Rafter was somehow able to stab at. The ball crossed the net and Philippoussis ripped a forehand cross court. It didn't look like Rafter would be able to reach it, but he willed himself there and whipped his own forehand back across the net.

Philippoussis covered it and again set Rafter sprinting. This time, the defending champ hit a solid backhand chip that caused his opponent to hit a forehand volley into the net.

It gave Rafter another break-point chance, and when Philippoussis hit a half-volley into the net, Rafter actually skipped along the baseline. He was up 4-2 and about to roll to the finish.

"A point like that," said Philippoussis, "can decide the set, even the match."

And it did. Philippoussis didn't win another game.

"I think he lost the momentum after that point, and it was hard for him in the fourth set," Rafter said. "I don't know how dejected he is. It was a big occasion for both of us. But I think my experience made the difference. I was so relaxed five unforced errors, no nerves involved.

"But I'm so happy for him, for doing so well here. It probably won't have any effect on him right now, but he is going to be one of the top players in the world once his whole game comes together."

Philippoussis did say this Open final "is just a start for me." But he also said it hurt terribly to lose.

"It was hard to look at him," Philippoussis said. "To be quite honest, I couldn't look at him, lifting up that trophy. It just hurt too much.

"I mean, you work so hard to get in the final, to see someone else put the trophy up -- obviously, that's what I had been dreaming about."

Men's singles championship

Patrick Rafter (3) def. Mark Philippoussis, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-0.

Women's doubles championship

Martina Hingis and Jana Novotna (1), def. Lindsay Davenport and Natasha Zvereva (2), 6-3, 6-3.

Men's 45 doubles championship

Vijay Amritraj and Jose Higueras def. Tom Gullikson and Dick Stockton, 6-4, 6-4.

Women's masters doubles championship

Betsy Nagelsen and Wendy Turnbull def. Gigi Fernandez and Betty Stove, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3.

Boys' singles championship

David Nalbandian (10), Argentina, def. Roger Federer (4), Switzerland, 6-3, 7-5.

Girls' singles championship

Jelena Dokic (2), Australia, def. Katarina Srebotnik (1), Slovenia, 6-4, 6-2.

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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