- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001

NEW YORK This could be Patrick Rafter's final U.S. Open. Or not. Truth be told, Rafter isn't quite sure these days.
In fact, all the No. 6 seed and two-time former Open champion really knows is this: After a decade on tour, he's ready for a long vacation.
Maybe even a permanent one.
"I don't want to be around tennis for awhile," said Rafter, a 28-year-old Australian ranked No. 4 in the ATP Champions Race. "[I want] to see how much I miss it, if I do or not."
Rafter will get his chance soon enough. Following the Open and Davis Cup play this fall, he plans to take a six-month leave from the game one in which he'll consider retirement.
"I really don't have a lot of idea what I'm going to do," Rafter said. "[I'll] probably head back to Bermuda [where Rafter keeps a home], chill out there for a while, see what I want to do."
In the meantime, Rafter, who defeated Christophe Rochus 7-5, 6-2, 6-1 last night in a second-round match, has set his sights on something only 11 players have ever accomplished: A trio of Open titles.
A winner in 1997 and 1998, Rafter is one of this year's leading contenders, despite a difficult draw that could have him facing Pete Sampras in the round of 16 and Andre Agassi in the semifinals.
The reason? Since declaring his intention to take time off back in January, Rafter has enjoyed one of his finest seasons.
At the Australian Open, Rafter reached the semifinals before falling to eventual champion Agassi. At Wimbledon, he notched a five-set, come-from-behind semifinal victory over Agassi, then lost to Goran Ivanisevic in a hotly contested final.
Rafter was equally good on the summer hardcourt circuit, reaching four consecutive finals and capturing a Masters Series title in Indianapolis. Overall, he's 45-13 this season all while playing a trademark, hard-charging serve-and-volley style that's nearly extinct in the men's game.
"You just feel like he's all over the net," said Bob Bryan, a straight-set loser to Rafter in the Open's first round. "It's hard to pass the guy. He's really athletic. He's not missing those volleys."
The irony of Rafter walking away from the game while playing some of his best tennis isn't lost on Bryan, a 23-year-old American doubles specialist.
"[I'd] keep it flowing, man, keep the money coming in," Bryan said with a laugh. "I'm going to play this game as long as I can … I don't blame him [for taking a leave], though. He has to deal with a lot of stuff day-to-day."
All this year, Rafter has said he's simply sick of the tour's daily grind. And given his hard-earned rise to the top, it isn't difficult to see why.
The seventh of nine children, Rafter grew up poor on a farm in Mount Isa, a small Australian mining town. After turning pro in 1991, Rafter and his brother, Geoff, survived on the European circuit by sleeping in railway stations and eating bread and cheese.
In fact, it took Rafter three years to win his first title at Manchester, England, in 1994 and four more to shed his journeyman reputation by breaking through at the Open.
Along the way, he's battled knee, wrist and ankle injuries, as well as a chronically sore right shoulder that nearly forced him to quit the sport at the end of 1999.
Asked on Monday to discuss what he still loves about the game, Rafter gave a telling if unsurprising answer.
"That it's nearly finished," he said.
If Rafter decides to retire for good, he'll be widely missed on the tour, where his charitable bent, handsome visage and genial personality have made him a favorite of fans and fellow players alike.
Following his triumph at the 1997 Open, Rafter had to be talked out of donating his entire $930,000 winner's check to a favorite children's charity. Later that year, People Magazine dubbed him the world's sexiest athlete a title Rafter's longtime girlfriend, Australian swimsuit model Lara Feltham, would likely endorse.
Prior to his match against Bryan, Rafter took the court early, sharing a typically self-depreciating joke with his young opponent.
"[Rafter's] like, 'I don't have a chance,' " Bryan said. "[And I said], 'I don't know about that, Pat.' … He's just a great guy. He's not the kind of guy that holds any grudges. Off the court, everybody likes him."
Rafter plans to start his vacation once Australia is finished with Davis Cup play. The Aussies play host to Sweden in a September semifinal; if they win, Rafter also will play in the final, which begins Nov. 26.
After that, Rafter intends to spend Christmas in Australia, then return to his home in Bermuda the same place he went following his heartbreaking, five-set Wimbledon loss to Ivanisevic.
"I just went back and stayed with some really close friends," Rafter said. "I didn't want to hear people saying, 'Great Wimbledon, bad luck.'
"And there were no real high bridges in Bermuda to jump off of," he added with a laugh.
Should Rafter return, it wouldn't be his first comeback following an extended absence from the tour. Rafter sat out three months after undergoing arthroscopic rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder in October 1999. During this year's spring clay-court season, Rafter took six weeks off and looked none the worse at the All England Club.
"He's playing great," Bryan said. "I think he can go for a good five more years, as long as his body holds up."
Rafter isn't so sure. While players such as Agassi (age 31) and Ivanisevic (about to turn 30) are still going strong into their 30s, Rafter said he may not want to follow suit.
"It's everyone to themselves," he said. "They're obviously feeling good. I think everyone has their own threshold for it.
"I don't want to put myself anywhere near someone like [Bjorn] Borg, but at 26 the guy was tired of tennis. I think Mats [Wilander] also had a bit of a letdown as well. I think we all hit our point where we say, 'That's enough.' "

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