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Aussie Rafter is a real throwback

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© St. Petersburg Times, published July 6, 2000

WIMBLEDON, England -- Patrick Rafter's pals call him "Skunky."

He's a gifted, giving Aussie, twice U.S. Open champ and now a Wimbledon semifinalist, a flamboyant soul prone to doing sweet things for people, such as celebrating his Flushing Meadows glory in 1998 by donating his winner's check of $425,000 to children's charities.

"Life is an endless education," Rafter said. "I'm so blessed as an athlete, coming from solid Australian roots, it would be selfish to not try helping others. Being from a big family, my father constantly struggling to support the 11 of us, there are many motivations to be appreciative and sharing."

Attitude is one of his talents.

After six months of pain and tennis uncertainty, healing from shoulder surgery in October, Rafter has quietly reflourished at Wimbledon. His next exam will be against Andre Agassi.

"During the trauma with my rotator cuff, I wasn't a good guy to be around," said Rafter, a handsome Queenslander who a year ago was the world's No. 1-ranked player. "I was moody, impatient and even scared at times."

Now the smile is back.

Rafter's tennis earnings approach $9-million, but Rafter, a 27-year-old bachelor, eschews building mansions, indulging himself with no edifice more prodigious than a two-bedroom condo in Bermuda.

Many renowned jocks have fleets of expensive motor vehicles, but Pat owns zero wheels. He uses public transportation and rents mopeds. His free-time passion is golf, but Rafter uses no cart. Pat walks, carrying his clubs.

Skunky, indeed.

He could make endorsement fortunes, but Rafter has no agent. Most successful tennis pros travel the globe with a personal coach, but Rafter has none. Pat enjoys a party and is renowned for picking up checks for all who dine and drink at his side.

He's an easy-to-embrace throwback to Australia's tennis wonders of two generations ago, when Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe, Lew Hoad and peers emerged from Down Under's working class and forever refused to behave poorly or strut with arrogance, knowing that would bring frowns from mates and their homeland.

Unlike those old Aussies, this one has a slick, flashy look with three-day beard and ponytail. He showed up on a magazine's "sexiest men" list. He's hardly a male Anna Kournikova, but groupies appear at Rafter's court.

His making that list was a knee slapper for Pat's posse of buddies and siblings, including five brothers and three sisters. "He's not even best looking in our family," older brother Peter Rafter said. Consensus is, according to Peter Rafter, that most handsome of all Rafter men is Geoff, who at 34 is something of a career surfer.

Okay, the nickname.

Pat's best chum, Paul Kilderry, came up with "Skunky." They're always joyously trading insults. Those bounding Aussies, always willing to throw an extra barb on the barbie.

In many countries, tennis players are born in country club environs. There are notable exceptions, such as Serena and Venus Williams, from who are from tough California streets, and many Europeans who grew in the sport without lavish resources.

In Australia, tennis is more a blue-collar game. Rafter used hand-me-down rackets and played the game in the streets of Mount Isa. Beer drinkers often use tennis skills to settle bar bets.

Pat was the runt of the Rafter litter until his late teens, a meek kid with lots of pimples. During those years, he bounced about the globe playing second-rate tournaments. Geoff, the beachcombing brother, was frequently along. He also played tennis. They were a doubles team.

Geoff, a free thinker, exposed Pat to a rainbow of mental stimulation. Younger brother was coaxed to read of Buddhism, Hinduism, acupuncture and reincarnation. "Everything but cults," Rafter said. "Above all, I was studying realism, plus getting some hard lessons in tennis."

At 20, there was the Grand Slam baptismal. Playing near home in the Australian Open, Rafter lost in the first round. Next year, in 1993, it happened again. It was 1994 before Rafter found real traction on the hotshot tour, getting to the fourth round at the French Open, the third at both the U.S. Open and Australian, and second at Wimbledon.

So Rafter was no overnight wonder when he beat Greg Rusedski in the '97 Open final. It was no fluke. In 1998 Rafter won again in New York, that time ruling the final of America's major against countryman Mark Philippoussis.

"My roots are such, I don't go floating to some far-off planet when I achieve some tennis success," he said. "I know where I came from. I know the road I traveled to get here. I try to appreciate everything that happens. I hope I am always of a spirit of sharing the good things, with family and friends and everybody."

Skunky? Oh, no.

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