ATP HERITAGE PROGRAMME
ATP Heritage: Rafter A Master Of Serve And Volley
's-Hertogenbosch Honour Roll
by James Buddell|
If you look down the roll of honour for the Topshelf Open – for a time the only grass-court tournament on continental Europe – one name stands out clearer than any other: Patrick Rafter. Champion in 1998, 1999 and 2000.
As a natural serve and volleyer, his game was ideally suited for grass. He won 15 straight matches at the ATP World Tour 250 tournament, which ensured that he also performed strongly at The Championships, Wimbledon. “I felt invincible in Rosmalen,” Rafter told ATPWorldTour.com. “The courts were wet and low bouncing. It was more difficult to hit groundstrokes so the net was the place to finish off points. I really enjoyed the laid back environment before heading to Wimbledon.”
But Rafter “got a big shock,” in 2001, when he lost to Peter Wessels 7-5, 6-4 in the first round. “It is probably the one Rosmalen match that stands out in my mind.”
He compiled a 74-25 (.747) match record on grass courts - and won four of his 11 career titles on the surface.
In 1999, Rafter was performing well enough to twice stand one match victory away from clinching No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. Though he lost in the Internazionali BNL d'Italia final at Rome (l. to Kuerten) and the Wimbledon semi-finals (l. to Agassi), on 29 July 1999, he became the 17th man to rise to No. 1. This year the ATP pays special tribute to the 25 former World No. 1s as part of the ATP Heritage programme, marking 40 years since the ranking system was introduced in 1973.
Twenty-four years, 11 months and 28 days had passed since fellow Australian John Newcombe was last ranked World No. 1. Newcombe held the top spot for eight weeks from 3 June to 28 July 1974. Rafter’s tenure at No. 1 lasted just one solitary week, during a season when the top spot was shared amongst five players – including Pete Sampras, Carlos Moya, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Andre Agassi.
Rafter continued to perform at his peak, however. From 1999 to 2001, he was among the title favourites at Wimbledon, where he charmed galleries with his attacking skills, athleticism and personality.
“Wimbledon was a much harder grass court than Rosmalen,” said Rafter. “I liked the bounce you got off the court, but I was always scared about the first few matches. I didn’t like the green slick courts in the first week as it was hard to move on.”
“He got me in 1999,” said Rafter, who lost to Agassi 7-5, 7-6(5), 6-2. “He was just too good in that match. But the others were tight. I loved the match ups against Andre. We complemented each other’s games well and it was nearly always a dynamic match.”
In 2000, Rafter beat Agassi 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 and the following year he won again, 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 8-6.
By the time Rafter played his last match, aged 29, in December 2001, serve and volley tennis was in decline. Within seven months, Lleyton Hewitt beat David Nalbandian in the first all-baseliner final at Wimbledon.
Rafter, who spent 12 seasons as a pro charging to the net, believes that serve and volley still has a place in tennis today.
“Serve and volley is a game that needs to be played at a young age,” said Rafter, who is now Australia’s Davis Cup captain. “It has a lot of intricate details to it that need to be played and played.
“To mix it up and do it every now and then can be done by anyone, but to be done all the time requires a different type of thinking.
“When the next serve and volleyer comes along he is going to be a cult hero… providing he knows what he is doing!”