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Taming Fame

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For better or for worse, the U.S. Open now defines Patrick Rafter as a tennis player and largely shapes his life off the court, seemingly having ended his untroubled days as a private person.

What isn’t as widely known is that the life-altering event, his 1997 U.S. Open championship, came quite close to not happening. In tennis terms, it was like a shot clipping the baseline.

Nearing his U.S. Open title defense, the 25-year-old Australian reflected on the close call as he drove through stop-and-go traffic in Los Angeles the other day. He was taking a break from his tournament preparation for the Mercedes-Benz Cup at UCLA, which started on Monday.

“The funny thing is, I didn’t enter the ['97] U.S. Open,” he said, smiling. “My brother [Stephen] entered me and [the entry] never got through.”

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Rafter’s former management agency, IMG, spotted the player entry list and became alarmed when his name was missing. A friend at IMG tracked him down and said, “You haven’t entered.” And IMG entered Rafter.

“I was very lucky,” he said. “That was a great thing for IMG to have done because I wasn’t on their books anymore. And they thought of it.”

Rafter paused and delivered the punch line.

“They entered me, and I went on to win it. So I guess I shouldn’t enter any more tournaments,” he said, laughing.

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Almost no player is ready for the twin avalanche of attention and pressure accompanying a first Grand Slam singles title. Rafter was the first Australian to win a Grand Slam tournament in 10 years, following Pat Cash, who won Wimbledon in 1987.

Cash, too, was overwhelmed by the attention and the media scrutiny. But that’s where the similarities end. Cash, now in the media with the BBC at Wimbledon, grew testy with the press onslaught.

How much, if any, has Rafter changed?

The increased demands wear on him a bit and he said one thing he will do in 1999 is cut his playing schedule by about six weeks.

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But if success--he ranked No. 2 late last year, the first Australian to be ranked that high since 1974--has created something of a drag on his mind and body, the weight hasn’t pulled him under yet.

Consider:

* When top-ranked Pete Sampras withdrew from Los Angeles tournament because he is recovering from an operation on his right foot, Rafter took his place in more ways than one. He not only became the top-seeded player but also immediately volunteered to replace Sampras in Monday night’s charity event, “An Evening at the Net.”

* Dismayed by his first-round loss at a tournament in Lyon, France, last October, Rafter returned his appearance money, in the range of $50,000-$75,000.

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“People pay you to do a job,” he said. “When someone builds your house, you want them to do a good job. If they don’t do a good job, you don’t pay them. And that’s the way I think tennis should be done too.” But in tennis, such a move is about as rare as a star player without an entourage.

Which brings us to another point in the state of Rafter, post-U.S. Open championship. He doesn’t have an entourage. On this day, he was driving his own car, carrying his own bag and traveling without a coterie of underlings to do his bidding.

His traveling party is himself. The last person who traveled with him consistently as a coach is his brother Geoff. Former Aussie stars John Newcombe and Tony Roche offer advice, sometimes via fax.

But Rafter dismissed Geoff, who is six years older, at the start of 1997. It wasn’t a ruthless firing. Quite simply, Rafter needed solitude.

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“I don’t want to be dependent on other people,” he said. “I like my own space.”

Newcombe punctured his solitude shortly before a tournament at Rosmalen in the Netherlands in June, sending him a fairly candid fax with some criticism of Rafter’s attitude. At first, he was tempted to throw it away but then Rafter realized the wisdom of Newcombe’s words. He won Rosmalen and reached the fourth round at Wimbledon.

“He got into me a little bit,” Rafter said. “I get faxes from him when I’m down, and Roche will call. It was at the right time. At first, I didn’t think much of it. And then I read it again and I thought I could get a lot of things out of it.

“It just said, ‘Control your temper and have fun out there. And don’t throw your racket.’ ”

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When John McEnroe dismissed Rafter as a one-Slam wonder before Wimbledon, Rafter handled it with maturity. He and McEnroe spoke.

“He could be right,” Rafter said. “I respect John. He talks off the hip a little bit. I think he’s quite funny, so I didn’t have any animosity toward him.”

In his low-key fashion, Rafter is not making any predictions about the U.S. Open, which starts in August.

“There’s a lot of pressure. My expectations . . . I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t really want to think about it yet. I’ll wait and see. I just want to have some good results.”

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*

Taylor Dent’s debut in a major tour event was a brief one, as he lost, 6-3, 6-2, to Sandon Stolle of Australia on Monday in the first round at the Mercedes-Benz Cup at UCLA.

Dent, a 17-year-old amateur from Newport Beach, had won three qualifying matches.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Mercedes-Benz Cup

* WHEN: Through Sunday.

* WHERE: UCLA’s Los Angeles Tennis Center (hard court).

TODAY’S SINGLES MATCHES

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* 11 a.m., Stadium Court

Jeff Tarango vs. Alejandro Hernandez, Mexico; Wayne Ferreira (6), South Africa vs. Sargis Sargsian, Armenia; Guillaume Raoux, France vs. Goran Ivanisevic (3), Croatia; Tim Henman, (2), England vs. Grant Stafford, South Africa.

* Noon, Grandstand Court

Marcos Ondruska, South Africa vs. Vince Spadea (8); Michael Joyce vs. Michael Tebbutt, Australia.

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* 7:30 p.m., Stadium Court

Bob Bryan vs. Andre Agassi (5); Ramon Delgado, Paraguay vs. Patrick Rafter, Australia (1).


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