Sad Pat Rafter truth really hits home
Pat Rafter may laugh about it now but the heartache from his most devastating loss still lingers 19 years on.
The Aussie tennis legend was destined to win Wimbledon in 2001. Pete Sampras had beaten him in the final the year before but this time the draw opened up nicely and pitted him against Croatian Goran Ivanisevic in the decider.
Rafter was a top-10 player while Ivanisevic's golden run at the All England Club was an anomaly during a barely believable career freefall. Having lost three Wimbledon finals in the 1990s, the big-serving leftie was ranked 125th in the world by 2001 and needed a wildcard just to gain entry to the main draw.
Prior to the grand slam, Ivanisevic had lost in qualifying at the Australian Open and been defaulted from a lead-up tournament in Brighton because he broke all his racquets.
These details are covered in a recent episode of The Tennis Podcast, hosted by broadcasters Catherine Whitaker and David Law, as they took a deep dive into the 2001 edition of Wimbledon that Australia was certain would deliver its first homegrown champion since Pat Cash in 1987.
But Ivanisevic, who said he wouldn't have been able to cope with losing a fourth Wimbledon final, did the unthinkable and toppled Rafter in five sets 6-3 3-6 6-3 2-6 9-7.
Rafter knew that would be his last visit to SW19 because he was retiring and told Whitaker he was "incredibly nervous, like I'd never been nervous before", unable to find his groove after being broken early and losing the first set as Ivanisevic's risk-taking paid dividends.
It was all over when Rafter clunked a forehand into the net on match point. As the players met in the middle of the court, Ivanisevic in tears, the Aussie managed a smile and even ruffled his mate's hair. But looks can be deceiving.
"At the time, I've got to deal with it. I'm not happy. When we shook hands it all looks like we're best buddies, but it was hurting," Rafter told Whitaker. "I was seething. It wasn't easy.
"It (his post-match commiseration party) was bittersweet as well. It was really touching, there were some really nice, sentimental things said but it was also very hard to take because you were the loser."
The loveable Australian has learnt to live with the result no one saw coming but it took a while to get there.
"I can laugh about it now, but at the time I had no laughter in me when that final point went his way," Rafter said. "That selfish part of me wants that Wimbledon trophy. Gee, it would have been great to have.
"Every now and then a thought or a flashback might come in (of that match) and I'm very quick to just push it aside. I think for the first five years I was waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night just re-enacting or going through a game at 5-4 on his serve and just thinking, 'I wish I'd picked this way, I wish I'd done that' and that stayed with me for quite a while."
Rafter and Ivanisevic were close back then and still share a special bond today. Rafter says if he couldn't win, he's glad his good mate was able to lift the trophy.
But for the past 19 years the Croatian has been giving him stick about that July day and there's nothing the two-time US Open champion can do but grin and bear it - because the alternative is too grim.
"It was a pretty moving moment for both of us but he'll just sit there and literally give me s***," Rafter said. "It's unreal.
"He'll say, 'How are you feeling? I won that, you know that?'
"It's just classic, it's just Goran and I just sit there and laugh … What else am I going to do? I'm either going to cry or I'm going to laugh."
'THERE'S A SADNESS TO HIS VOICE I WASN'T EXPECTING'
Rafter is the ultimate good guy. He would offer a "sorry, mate" to opponents whenever he did a double-take with his ball toss and was admired for his personality as much as his serve-and-volleying prowess.
It's why Whitaker always thought the laconic Aussie would have taken the loss in his stride and not let it drag him down.
But after speaking to Rafter about the one that got away, she was taken aback by how raw the emotions of that missed opportunity are.
"Going into that chat I know I underestimated the extent to which that loss hurt and still hurts for Pat Rafter," Whitaker said on The Tennis Podcast.
"Because most of the conversations I've witnessed with him talking about that match, Goran's been present for. And as he describes there, the dynamic is always Goran ribbing him and Pat just taking it and laughing, just being a great sport about it and finding it in himself to be happy for Goran … because he's aware of how bad it could have been for Goran if he didn't win.
"Talking to him about it one-on-one there, and all of that is still the case, he's clearly genuinely happy for Goran, they clearly have a special relationship … but there's an edge and a sadness to his voice which I wasn't quite expecting.
"I feel foolish for that now.
"You know, he came two points away from winning Wimbledon. He wanted to win Wimbledon more than anything, more than winning the Australian Open, he said, and he was two points away and feels like he didn't perform to his best in the moment that really counted. So how could he not be (sad)? It did really strike me, it really did."
Law, who knows Ivanisevic well and was desperate for him to win in 2001, said Rafter's insight provided a fresh perspective on a match he had always viewed as the fairytale ending for a man seeking to make amends for three previous heartbreaks on the world's most famous centre court.
"I've always seen that match through the eyes of Goran … to me it was about Goran, in his words, not ending up in a real state for the rest of his life," Law said.
"When you realise that Pat Rafter had been in the final the year before, he desperately wanted to win Wimbledon. It was bigger to him than any other tournament and it was big in Australia and he was going to end his career."
Originally published as Sad Pat Rafter truth really hits home