Rafter Claims U.S. Open for Australia

NEW YORK -- The phone calls for Patrick Rafter came at odd hours in strange places.

John Newcombe would offer a few words of advice. Tony Roche would notice something about Rafter's strokes and movement and ring him up.

In the middle of the night at hotel rooms around the world, Rafter would listen intently. He'd chat at times, too, with Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall and Fred Stolle, learning something from them all.

On Sunday, Rafter linked his name to those great champions of Australia's proud tennis heritage as he overcame the fastest server in history to win the U.S. Open and secure his first Grand Slam title.

Rafter stared at his racket to see if it had cracked when Greg Rusedski unleashed a record 229 kilometers-per-hour serve in the fourth set, then bore down to finish off a 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 victory.

In a scene reminiscent of Australian Pat Cash's climb into the stands to hug his father when he won Wimbledon in 1987, Rafter climbed up to embrace his family, friends and Roche, his coach this year at the majors. "Cashy did it, and I thought it was pretty cool," Rafter said. "I could have jumped up and down for the next half-hour."

The first Australian champion of the U.S. Open since Newcombe won the tournament in 1973, Rafter played in the tradition of his famous mentors with a serve-and-volley style and an athletic flair that never wavered even under pressure.

"He's got the same competitiveness, the serve-volley routine, the aggressiveness, and the willingness to put yourself on the line," Newcombe said.

"Australians are not born with this, you know. They've got to achieve it like everybody else. Now, he's done it, he's arrived, and the job is to hold onto it."

Rusedski, trying to become the first British winner since Fred Perry in 1936, provided plenty of pressure with his booming serves and gutsy shots in a third-set comeback. But Rafter broke him in key games, kept attacking the net, leaping for almost impossible volleys and making them.

Rafter wore his long hair in a Samurai bun, and he played with a warrior's fervor. His connection to players like Newcombe and Laver, Roche and Rosewall, could be seen in his graceful style on court, his muscular legs, and his fundamental love of the game.

For more than two decades, Australia's best players have been banding together to help produce another champion. Cash came along as a surprise a decade ago, and now so has Rafter.

Rafter lost in the first round at the U.S. Open a year ago. Rusedski hadn't won a match at the Open in his three previous years here.

"The difference was I missed a few easy volleys, a few balls by an inch," Rusedski said. "Pat was just the better player on the day. I think I'll learn, like I did from being in the quarters at Wimbledon. Learn to push it up a notch."

Rafter's path to the title was littered with top players, including former champion Andre Agassi and No. 2 seed Michael Chang. But Rafter lost only two sets in the tournament, one against Agassi and one against Rusedski.

Now, Rafter will be ranked No. 3 behind Pete Sampras and Chang. He is the first Australian in the top 10 since Cash reached No. 10 in 1988.

Rusedksi offered a simple explanation for why Rafter has moved up so quickly this year.

"The style in men's tennis is more baseline because of the clay courters from Spain," he said. "You need an all-around game. That's why Patrick has taken such a jump."

Rusedski had hoped to bring his grieving countrymen a lift by winning this tournament, something to take their minds off the death of Princess Diana for a moment. Now he doesn't know what kind of greeting to expect when he returns.

"With everything that's happened, it would have been nice to have a nice welcome," he said. "But I'd be happier if I was bringing the cup home."