- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2001

WIMBLEDON, England Pat Rafter is two victories from walking away with the ultimate pension.
"Mate, I'm trying not to think about it, but it would be a nice exit," said the 28-year-old Aussie, who plays Andre Agassi in the first of today's men's semifinals at Wimbledon. "When I first came here, I was never really a contender. So I'd always enjoy myself in London, go to the pubs… . It's not like that anymore. It's strictly business. I feel pressure now. I want to make the most of it, because it could be my last time here."
Rafter, who in January announced his tentative plans to retire after this season, would be a sentimental favorite in almost any other year. But among the resurgence of Goran Ivanisevic, the prospects of native son Tim Henman and the presence of Agassi, the sport's most popular player, Rafter's farewell tour through the men's draw has taken a bit of a back seat.
But not among his fellow players.
"Pat's a class act," said American Todd Martin earlier this week. "He's still got this image as kind of a flamboyant pretty boy, but he's one of the most genuine, laid-back guys out here. It would be great to see him make it through."
Rafter has always been something of a paradoxical figure on tour. He was never a junior star in Australia, yet he was the first of a class of post-Edberg Aussies to break through in the Slams when he won the 1997 U.S. Open. Less than a month later, People magazine named him one of its 10 sexiest men on earth. Yet despite his signature mane and classic features, the third youngest of nine children raised on a farm north of Brisbane was always more pal than playboy.
After winning the Open, he didn't buy an expensive car (in fact he still doesn't own one); instead he gave $300,000 to the Brisbane Mater Hospital to aid children with terminal illnesses. When he successfully defended his title at Flushing Meadows the following year, he repeated the donation. And five months ago, he agreed to trim his flowing locks in return for a $26,000 donation from Braun to his Patrick Rafter Cherish the Children Foundation.
"I was going to cut it anyway," said Rafter, downplaying his largesse. "I really just had enough of long hair it's not very macho."
Neither is his game. Rafter lacks the overpowering serve that usually translates into Wimbledon success, and his groundstrokes are downright pedestrian for a player of his elite level. But his footwork is Agassi-esque, his finesse and quickness around the net superb and his patented kick serve effective if not intimidating.
"Pat's one of those guys that doesn't need to serve 128 miles an hour, because not only does he move it around well, he hits a lot of different speeds," said Agassi, who is 2-1 against Rafter at Wimbledon. "I've said many times that Pat is a great player, a great competitor."
But aside from his back-to-back Open tear, Rafter has a somewhat spotty resume for an upper-echelon player. He has won only 10 total titles in 10 years on tour. Though he is often praised as a phenomenal athlete, he has been plagued by dehydration and cramps throughout his career.
Last season, he missed two months of play after rotator cuff surgery. And despite his reputation as a dogged competitor, he has blown his share of big matches over the years, the most notable coming last year in the Wimbledon finals.
After edging Agassi in a classic five-set semi, Rafter had turf titan Pete Sampras down a set and 4-1 in the second-set tiebreaker before his nerves kicked in and enabled Sampras to surge to his seventh Wimbledon title.
"That one really hurt, because I was right there, and I kind of cinched up in the moment. I guess I couldn't really believe I was winning," said Rafter, who dumped the final three sets to Sampras. "But that's in the [rear view] mirror now."
Ahead for Rafter is Agassi, a possible first trip to the Wimbledon finals and then a graceful fade into the quiet life he relishes.
"If things go well, I might hold out through the Aussie Open next year," said Rafter, who is expected to marry his longtime girlfriend, Australian swimsuit model Lara Feltham, after his retirement. "But I'm looking forward to not playing, putting the rackets down altogether. If I do miss it, [Wimbledon] will definitely be the one I miss first and most."

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