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By Richard Pagliaro

(February 21, 2010) He doesn't glide toward the front court with the same elegant ease of an Edberg or display McEnroe's ability bend the ball around in angles only a book on geometry book written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss could possibly conceive.  But Patrick Rafter still plays with the unrelenting calm while rushing the net that recalls a surfer paddling toward a 12-foot wall of a wave and seeing possibility in the challenge before him.

These days, Rafter looks like a man happily riding his own wave.

Tanned and toned, the 37-year-old Aussie entered the interview room shirtless leading his son and daughter by the hand and wearing the wide smile of man who had just spent a family day at the beach.

Looking fit and exuding all the determination of a stunt man, Rafter opened the inaugural Delray Beach International Tennis Championships senior event playing the explosive serve-and-volley style that made him a fan favorite during his days as World No. 1 on the ATP Tour.

In an all-Aussie throwback match that featured a few "Sorry mates!" when Rafter caught an errant ball tosse and even an impromptu "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oy, Oy, Oy!" chant from one exuberant fan, Rafter denied his childhood tennis hero, 44-year-old Pat Cash, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 10-6 in a one-hour 22-minute win on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

The ATP Champions Tour is fundamentally a competition, but Rafter is well aware that entertainment value is an important part of the product and both Cash and Rafter took time out during the match to interact with the fans, encouraging them to participate in the proceedings at times.

"You're probably out there more to entertain than to play, but people want to see you serve and volley," Rafter said. "People don't want to see you stuff around either. I believe they still want you to serve and volley and play your hardest that. I like the crowd to sort of yell at you and give it to you. It's all sort of fun and part of the mix. You start to get competitive from the word go and we're all pretty serious about that."

Tennis Now caught up with Rafter after his first match of the season to discuss his views on his game, his rivalry with Andre Agassi, his feelings on 17-year-old Aussie prospect Bernard Tomic and his interest in coaching or leading the Australian Davis Cup team in the future.

Tennis Now: You look so fit. How do you prepare for an event like this? How often do you play? Do you play sets as part of your preparation for this?

Patrick Rafter: I always try to stay fit all year round. Right now it's surfing (season) so the next three or four months it's about surfing. I will run a bit. I do a fair amount of running. I go to the gym. I will play a little bit of tennis two or three times a week. I don't play sets because of my shoulder (injury). That is (to protect) my shoulder so I have to (try to save) my shoulder. I can't play sets or serve for too much (in practice). Right now, I feel good.

Tennis Now: We saw real throwback tennis today with you and Pat Cash coming in on every point. Do you think that serve-and-volley style, or elements of it, will eventually return as a natural counter-balance the baseline game so prevalent now?

Patrick Rafter: Probably. I think there will be a time (it returns). There's certainly room for that style of tennis. It's a style of tennis that requires certain things and an understanding of how to use the court. You can't just say to a guy like Murray to go and serve and volley and chip and charge. (To play serve-and-volley tennis) you have to know where you are on the court, how to cover shots, to anticipate shots. (You have to understand) what ball to come in on how to get yourself balanced at net. There's a whole lot of different things that (are required) so you can't just say "come to the net." I think there is certainly room for chip and charging. No doubt about it, you are rushing the guy (on the other side of the net). There's also room for slicing, dinking and coming in on short balls. That's a real important part of the game itself and I think if you can teach a guy to do that sort of thing it can be helpful.

Tennis Now: You were such a big Davis Cup player. Would you ever consider coaching or working with the Davis Cup team in any capacity?

Patrick Rafter: We are talking with Tennis Australia right now. They want (me) to get involved. It's a matter of I don't want to be away (from my family) and travel without my family. But there is certainly room for it.  I don't really want to travel around the world and do Davis Cup, but I sort of feel a little obligation (to do it).

Tennis Now: What do you think of Bernard Tomic? Is he the real deal?

Patrick Rafter: The one thing every one worries about with Tomic is he's probably not as good of an athlete (as top 20 players). He's long and lanky and he's only 17 so he could grow into it. I haven't seen any signs of him being a great athlete yet. What he has got that is a lot of other skills that other players don't have. I believe he is a top 50 player and can be there in the next couple of years if he knuckles down. These days you have to be a great athlete. When you played in my era, you could say top 20 (players) don't have to be great athletes. Right now, everyone is 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 (and) runs well. I think he's the real deal. He's got some beautiful skills. I'm watching him and commentating during the Australian Open and I'm being asked about him. I don't know. I can't work the guy out. Something about him is awkward. Yes, I think he's the real deal.

Tennis Now: Have you learned anything from doing commentary that helps you see the game better or differently? Have you learned things you can apply to how you play now?

Patrick Rafter: I've only done a little bit (of commentating). Watching more tennis I guess I started to understand things better. What I tried to do when I played is I tried to understand what people are thinking on the tennis court. It's seeing both sides of the court. It's more in the head than the actual match itself (that have helped).

Tennis Now: I read Agassi's book and in the book Agassi says you and he were a better rivalry than him and Sampras. What do you think about that?

Patrick Rafter: It was. It was a lot better (laughs). With Andre, in his book he summed up Pete pretty well in a lot of ways. Pete was pretty ugly to play against. When I played Pete it was just the ugliest match you've ever seen.

Tennis Now: What about the time you played him in Indian Wells? That was a great match.

Patrick Rafter: All of the matches were ugly (laughs). Pete served big. It was exactly what Andre said: Pete would be (down), he's walking around, he's not even there. Then, all of a sudden, he serves four clean service winners and then he's won the set. It was exactly what Andre said.  With Andre and I — we had the contrasting styles. I wasn't a huge server so he could get onto my serve and he could make big returns and I'd make a volley off my toes and then he'd pass me. It was fun. We played a lot from the baseline as well because he'd stay back and I wasn't someone who teed off. I'd work the point and play the point to where I could get to net. I wish I was a better player to say we had a better rivalry. Andre and Pete were playing for the top two spots and I was happy to be there.

Tennis Now:
Would you ever consider doing exhibitions with Andre? You know how Pete and Andre played the exhibition last year? Would you ever consider playing exos with Andre?

Tennis Now: Yeah, yeah. Of course. I'll do anything for money (laughs). I would really enjoy that — playing with Andre. Pete and I played each other in Mexico last year and it wasn't pretty (laughs).

Photo Credit: Alberto Amalfi


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