PAT Rafter is not sure how much of this is about ego. Perhaps a little. But the dual US Open champion and former world No. 1 is certain that a big part of what motivates his captaincy of Australia’s Davis Cup team is the duty he feels to help replenish the game locally.
”You want to see players come back into tennis in Australia, you want to see players develop, and you hope that you can help them out in some little way. And is that an ego thing? It might be, I guess. I don’t know, but at the same time I feel a responsibility, as much as anything, to try and put back in,” Rafter told The Saturday Age.
”It would be very easy for me to sit around and do nothing. And, really, what am I going to do with my life? I’m not going to go and work in a bank … I only know tennis. So I don’t have a lot of options.”
Yeah, right. Sure. At least he has the good grace to laugh as he says it. Three months before his 40th birthday, Rafter remains enduringly popular and immensely bankable – despite more than a decade having passed since chronic arm injuries prompted his retirement to a comfortable life as a father, surfer, golfer and in-demand advertising spruiker, and eventually to the spectacular beachfront home he shares with his wife, Lara, and children Josh and India on the Sunshine Coast.
It was not until late 2010, by which time he had also returned to competition on the seniors circuit, that Rafter was persuaded to succeed John Fitzgerald in the Davis Cup chair. His second year will end next weekend with the world-group play-off against Germany in Hamburg; Australia’s latest quest to return to the 16-nation elite group it departed in 2007.
Twelve months ago, the corresponding tie ended in a spirited 3-2 loss to Switzerland that dramatically spilled over into a fourth day in Sydney, where the ever-quotable Rafter was passionate, animated, outspoken. As Sunday’s blunt ultimatum to the attitude-challenged Bernard Tomic and subsequent dumping of singles No. 2 Marinko Matosevic emphatically confirmed, a nice-guy figurehead type he is not. The captain admits the job has been more challenging than he imagined, particularly in terms of the time he is required to spend on the road. Indeed, he cancelled plans to attend several tournaments earlier this season when the demands on his family time proved too great.
During the ties, he effectively becomes a manager/psychologist, running practice sessions with coach Tony Roche, and then sitting at courtside trying to offer strategies, support, whatever might be needed. Still, often ”I think ‘gee, did I say the right thing then?’ So I’m constantly fighting within myself with it,” he says self-deprecatingly, of his man-management skills.
”I’m learning. I’m struggling with that sometimes; sometimes I get it right, sometimes I don’t. It’s a real work-in-progress, and sometimes the players are in a different head space as well – one particular match they might be really uptight, and they need this, or they might be a bit flat. So I’m really learning that part, and only because I base it on how I was, as well. I could be pretty temperamental, but generally you stay the same under pressure, and I’m learning players like certain things said to them.”
Or not, which is all part of the balancing act. He quips that it is not so much a matter of guiding Tomic as to ”just sit back and watch it develop. Or ‘unfold’, is probably a better word.” Tomic is interested, sort of, in what Rafter has to say, but then ”he goes off and does his own thing … it’s pretty funny”.
The experience itself – a 3-0 record in Asia-Oceania zone ties, and the crushing Switzerland loss – has been one of mood-swings, ups, downs. ”But I know that where we’re trying to head is the right way,” he says. ”So I can see where we’re going; just sometimes you have these little stumbling blocks along the way; when you want to keep stepping up, sometimes you get knocked back a bit, too, so we’re certainly having a bit of that. But it comes with the territory.”
And, frankly, he can only work with what he has: which means the frustrating twosome of Tomic and Matosevic, ageing warrior Lleyton Hewitt, solid citizen Matt Ebden and doubles guy Chris Guccione. As for the next great prospect, well, don’t ask Rafter, who concedes that some he has doubted have succeeded, others the opposite. ”So I’m really pretty careful now on who I judge, and I certainly don’t judge anyone too much. I try not to make any predictions on anyone, either.”
In the meantime, he has joined the establishment. From being among the high-profile group agitating for change at Tennis Australia just a few years ago, it counts as something of a TA recruiting coup to have lured Rafter inside the tent. But nor, then, is it a surprise when he claims to be feeling more positive about development now that he is privy to all that goes on.
”What I can see is we’ve got a handful of players coming through that might be pretty handy,” he said. ”Where we go from there, I don’t know. I can’t predict if they’re going to be world-beaters, or top 10, or etcetera, but they look pretty strong to me and they’ve got good attitudes, they’re good kids.
”Another good thing is that we’re exposing them to this, and these kids are seeing the highs and lows of what Davis Cup can bring, and what is expected of them through [Tony Roche] ‘Rochey’, myself and Lleyton, and what’s tolerated. They’re like [any] kids. They try and work out how far they can get, until they get spanked.”
So to the red clay of the Rothenbaum Stadium against the Florian Mayer-led Germans, who did not pick Philipp Kohlschreiber and could not select Tommy Haas from among their trio ranked inside the world’s top 23. After three failed play-off ties in four years, 3-2 losses all, what would clearly mean a lot to Hewitt would also be immensely satisfying for Rafter, who missed out on playing in a winning team and would love to take the first big step towards captaining one.
”I’d be happy for them, more than anything,” the once-reluctant general says of his soldiers. ”I enjoy hanging out with them and feeling the positivity of them and the bonding with them, I suppose. It’s not just about Davis Cup, though; it’s about developing players. Maybe Matty Ebden gets to 40 in the world, and you just hope that Davis Cup played some little part. Or you get four or five guys inside the top 50 and you go, ‘well, this is great, maybe you’ve done a little bit to help that process’. I guess that makes me feel pretty good. And you want to put back in, as well, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.