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 said. ”I only know tennis. So I don’t have a lot of options.”
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 – the latest tilt in Australia’s quest to return to the 16-nation elite it departed in 2007.
A year 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 concedes the job has been a challenge, particularly in terms of the time spent on the road. He pulled out of several tournaments this season when demands on his family time proved too great.
During the ties, he becomes a manager/psychologist, running practice sessions with coach Tony Roche and then sitting courtside trying to offer 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.
”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 headspace as well – one particular match they might be really uptight, and they need this, or they might be a bit flat.”
Or not, which is all part of the balancing act. He says it is not so much a matter of guiding Tomic as ”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 ups, downs. ”But I know that where we’re trying to head is the right way. 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.
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