The Wizard of Oz, Patrick Rafter, came, saw, and conquered Chennai, all right, and, in the process, the prestigious Gold Flake Indian Open Tennis tournament.Â It was a grand singles triumph – a triumph writ large in letters of gold.Â A victory that did the 1997 US Open champion a world of good – and, place his growing graph in tandem with the timeless madrigals of operatic music’s first great composer, Claudio Monteverdi.
The handsome, pony-tailed Aussie star was, doubtless, in fine fettle. He not only quelled the challenge posed by fifth seeded defending champion Mikael Tillstrom with surgical efficiency and finesse, but also demonstrated his contemplative and meditative ability to focus narrowly on just one path – the road to victory a la a traditional Zen master.
Rafter’s tennis, at the Nungambakkam stadium, was the evolution of art to poetry and evolutionary theory to idealism – a series of sturdy and reliable, if not irrefutable or orienting, even sweeping, generalisation.Â He looked absolutely unworried.Â He simply assembled his vast repertoire of orienting conclusions as if each of his stokes had incredible important truths to tell us.Â In more ways than one, Rafter’s game plan was a type of phenomenology – of human capability conducted at a sublime level.Â It’s also an assembly of one eternal truth: to, quite simply, assume that the basics of the game were, indeed, true.
For a man who was ranked #62, in 1996, Rafter moved up the ladder of tennis supremacy with clinical expertise, and phenomenal confidence.Â By the end of that year, and in a span of 12 months, he’s world #3 – a quantum leap.Â He’s worth more than US$3 million by way of prize earnings alone. That he had had his best year in the big events was a reflection of his rising graph – something that he himself may not have fancied, not too long ago.
Rafter was a tennis star in the making when he was not even 10. He was short – but, tall in the art of thinking.Â He just loved to hit the tennis ball from the baseline.Â And, when he came on to centre-stage, 15 years later, he was a transformed persona.Â He was always rushing to the net, ready to knock the stuffing out of his opponent. It was a foray that helped him win the singles crown at Flushing Meadows when critics were too busy conjuring up a host of reasons why he would not be able to win a major soon.
Pete Sampras summed up Rafter quite expertly: “He’s got a good game: he’s a good athlete: and, he’s a good attitude on court.” Add to that Rafter’s swashbuckling, sometimes breathtaking, electrifying tennis, and you had a convincing portrait of a genius in the making.
Rafter, for all practical purposes, may not have loved clay courts. But, when in the mood, there’s just no stopping him.Â The surface did not matter – nor, the opponent.Â His game was made of both class and class that had already won him a legion of hearts – more so, a multitude of female fans who had an integral ‘plea’ for him: ‘Meet Me After.’ Which more than explains why Rafter had been a big hit wherever he played, including Chennai, thanks to his robust physique, cogent mindset, and telegenic countenance.
A fantastic serve-and-volley player, Rafter was the most complete heir to that much neglected tradition.Â Not that he wasn’t a percentage exponent.Â He’s, and could be one, when things or circumstances warranted. All the same, his was not an anchronistic, queer tribute to vintage tennis. Rather, it was a comprehensively viable, practical, and temporal approach to modern tennis – a foray which made him ‘Rafter shock’ his opponents, big and not-so-big.
A protÃ©gÃ© of John Newcombe and Tony Roche, two great players, Rafter, according to Michael Chang, another outstanding player, was in the Stefan Edberg mould.Â Noted Chang: “Pat has the capability to power in the big serve, but he doesn’t seem to do that. It probably helps him – to make some of those tough volleys, he gets… He’s also not interested in hitting a lot of aces. He’s, on the contrary, interested in using his serve to set up his volley, and that’s where he’s dangerous.”
Inference? Simple. Rafter was a player with more purpose than power. Therefore, he was less erratic than someone like Mark Philippoussis, his talented compatriot.Â More than that, Rafter was a natural athlete. He’s blessed with all the shots in the textbook, and beyond. He’s a free-flowing stroke-maker, and a master in the battle of attrition. He chipped excursions were sharp, precise and incisive.Â His selection was skilful, creative, and well analysed. His own one-step plan to unlocking his master-mind.
A well-muscled, mature performer, Rafter was only getting stronger and better. More than that, he’s getting more and more confident – not overconfident. He’s always working on upgrading his level.Â In this most vital attribute, he’s like a marathon runner.Â He left nothing to chance, and always had the knack to pull himself out of any position to set up his inside-out winning shots.Â That’s not all.Â He’d a huge heart – something that more than helped him to add to his game and his winning ways.
There’s also a perception to Rafter’s game that went beyond commonplace vision. He set his sights on the future when he could easily change his game and/or adapt to new, pressure-compounded situations.Â He thought long-term: he prepared for disappointment: he did not really worry about losing: he trusted his mentors/coach: he’s prepared to be patient: he’s willing to accept his faults, and experiment with new shots, and exploit the result – and, maybe, think in terms of a conservative approach, not just a radical game plan, for the sake of sticking to conventional wisdom.
It also sums up Rafter – not just a winner, but a role model. A role model with a stunning display of integrative embrace… for the racquet game.
– Photo, Courtesy: ATP World Tour