By Alana Mitchelson
(January 12, 2014) MELBOURNE, Australia – Pat Rafter surprised tennis aficionados far and wide by announcing his return to ATP men’s doubles on the eve of the Australian Open 2014, partnering up with fellow Aussie Lleyton Hewitt.
For the two-time US Open champion, who was thought to have retired from tennis for good, this appearance will mark his first Grand Slam doubles match since the Australian Open 2004; an entire decade ago. It has been a further three years since his last singles appearance on the ATP Tour.
Rafter explained the circumstances surrounding Hewitt’s invitation, evidently excited by the prospect of playing at Grand Slam level once again.
“Lleyton wanted to play maybe another match here. Just depending on how he goes in singles, you know, say if he played with Gucc (Chris Guccione) or someone like that and then he had a tough first-round singles match, he would have to back up the singles and maybe pull out of doubles. So I’m the guy,” Rafter said, eyes gleaming.
“It’s really important for him to play great singles. That’s what it’s all about. He still likes playing competitive matches. So if he gets through the first singles and he feels comfortable, feeling he might want to play, it’s whatever Lleyton wants.
“I’ve had a great relationship with Lleyton over the years. We’ve also played a few practice matches in Davis Cup. I keep playing a little bit. Under pressure I’ll probably choke. Expect that to happen.”
While Rafter and Hewitt have never before teamed up at the Australian Open, they have shared the doubles court during the Davis Cup. Rafter was the first to criticise his rusty performance on the court.
“It was shocking, horrible. I was really bad. So my mates are sending me texts saying: ‘Can you please work on your returns?’ I’ll definitely be the worst player in the competition out there, but I’ll have fun. I’m playing with one of the best players in the competition. I figure it’s like eating chocolate and having broccoli. It sort of equals it out,” Rafter said with a chuckle.
“The hardest part about being around 40 is keeping your body in shape. It’s tough, I must admit. You don’t look after yourself like you did. You’re not in the locker room all the time. It’s just a bit of fun. Doubles, half a court, I think I can do that.”
If all goes ahead as planned, the Australians will find themselves in a first round clash with American Eric Butorac and South African Raven Klaasen.
The 41-year-old Australian won a Masters tournament at Albert Hall in London late last year after overcoming Tim Henman in straight sets, 6-3 6-1. This victory led him to reclaim the Statoil Masters title for the first time since 2009. But the former Grand Slam champion was surprised by his own form.
“I was actually playing well. I played the week before, and won. I played pretty well, singles have gone okay. But doubles has changed since I played. We used to play first serve, first volley and don’t miss. Now they’re jumping all over the place. Their serve just rockets down at you. I can’t return them at the best of times. I don’t know what I’m going to do out there,” Rafter laughed with a shrug.
While he enjoys his captaincy of the Davis Cup team, he is adamant he will not be following the recent trend of ex-players coaching on tour.
“That’s not going to happen. Davis Cup is enough for me.”
Nor does he plan to play with Hewitt at the Davis Cup despite recent rumors suggesting otherwise.
“There would have to be food poisoning or sicknesses. That would be my worst nightmare,” Rafter said.
“We won’t have anybody to sit on the side of the court, so we can’t do that!” Hewitt added.
Hewitt expressed his excitement about the new pairing and how, above all, he is looking forward to just having fun – a nice break from his serious focus on singles.
“I think he still thinks he’s got it in him, so I hope I don’t have to carry him too much. I actually asked him a little while ago,” Hewitt admitted.
“He still hits a lot at the Davis Cup ties, works us out a bit. It’s just a bit of fun. It will be nice on my off days, and hopefully I’m still in the singles, it will be nice to go out and play dubs with Pat. He’s hitting the ball well enough. Beat Ivanisevic and Henman and those guys over in the seniors tour. It’s just going to be a bit of fun for both of us.
“I obviously looked up to Pat a hell of a lot growing up. He really helped me out. It’s great that he’s Davis Cup captain for me now as well. Most likely, I’ll finish my career with him as Davis Cup captain which is fantastic for me as well. While we’re still able to move around the court together, it’s nice we can go out there and play in a Grand Slam.”
But was Tony Roche upset that Hewitt hadn’t asked him to play doubles instead of Rafter?
“Nah, he (Roche) would have gone all right, I reckon. Newk (John Newcombe) is probably more pissed off actually,” Hewitt joked.
Alana Mitchelson is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist covering the Australian Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow her tournament updates on Twitter @TennisNewsTPN and read her personal website http://alanamitchelson.wordpress.com