Pat Rafter might laugh at us now, but the pain of his most devastating loss still persists 19 years later.
The Australian tennis legend was destined to win Wimbledon in 2001. Pete Sampras had beaten him in the final the previous year, but this time the draw opened well and threw him against the Croatian Goran Ivanisevic in the decision maker.
Rafter was one of the top 10 players while Ivanisevic’s golden rush at the All England Club was an anomaly during a barely credible career drop. Having lost three Wimbledon finals in the 1990s, the remaining minion was in 125th place in the world by 2001 and needed a joker only to enter the main draw.
Prior to the grand slam, Ivanisevic had lost in qualifying at the Australian Open and had been missed by a head tournament in Brighton because he had broken all his rackets.
These details are covered in a recent episode of The tennis podcast, hosted by broadcasters Catherine Whitaker and David Law, as they immersed themselves deeply in the 2001 edition of Wimbledon according to which Australia was certain that it would deliver its first national champion after Pat Cash in 1987.
But Ivanisevic, who said he wouldn’t be able to face the loss of Wimbledon’s fourth final, did the unthinkable and overturned Rafter in five sets 6–3 3–6 6–3 2–6 9–7.
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Rafter knew it would be his last visit to SW19 because he was retiring and told Whitaker that he was “incredibly nervous, as if I had never been nervous before”, unable to find his groove after being broken early and having lost the first set at risk of Ivanisevic taking paid dividends.
It was all over when Rafter threw a forehand into the net at the meeting point. As the players met in the middle of the field, Ivanisevic in tears, the Aussie managed to smile and even ruffled his companion’s hair. But the appearance can be misleading.
“At the moment, I have to face it. I’m not happy. When we shook hands it looks like we’re best friends, but it was painful, “Rafter told Whitaker.” I was bubbling. It wasn’t easy
“He too (his post game commiseration party) was bittersweet. It was really touching, there were some really nice, sentimental things, but it was also very difficult to take because you were the loser. “
The amiable Australian has learned to live with the result that no one has seen coming but it took a while to get there.
“Now I can laugh at this, but at the moment I didn’t laugh at myself when that last point went its way,” said Rafter. “That selfish part wants that Wimbledon trophy. Damn, it would have been nice to have it.
“From time to time there may be a thought or flashback (of that game) and I’m very quick to put it aside. I think for the first five years I was waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, simply recalling or passing a game of 5-4 in his service and thinking, ‘I wish I had chosen this way, I wish I had done it’ and that remained with me for quite a while. “
Rafter and Ivanisevic were close then and still share a special bond today. Rafter says that if he failed to win, he is happy that his good partner was able to lift the trophy.
But for the past 19 years the Croatian has given him the stick for that day in July and there is nothing the two-time US Open champion can do except smile and endure it, because the alternative is too dark.
“It was a pretty moving moment for both of us, but it will just sit there and literally give me a shit,” said Rafter. “It is unreal.
“He will say: ‘How are you feeling? I won it, you know?
“It’s just classic, it’s just Goran and I sit there and laugh … What else am I going to do? Either I will cry or laugh. “
“THERE IS A SADNESS TO HIS VOICE THAT I WAS NOT WAITING FOR”
Rafter is the last good guy. He offered an “excuse, friend” to his opponents every time he double-taped his throwing ball and was admired for his personality as much as his ability to serve.
This is why Whitaker has always thought that the laconic Australian would have to suffer the loss of his step and not let him drag him down.
But after talking to Rafter about what fled, she was taken aback by how raw the emotions of that missed opportunity are.
“Entering that chat, I know I underestimated the extent to which that loss hurt and still hurts Pat Rafter,” said Whitaker The tennis podcast.
“Since most of the conversations I witnessed were about that game, Goran was present. And as he describes it, the dynamic is always Goran who torments him and Pat takes him and laughs, being just a great sport and finding him in himself to be happy for Goran … because he is aware of how bad Goran could have been if not had won.
“Talking to him one on one there, and everything else is still like that, he is clearly sincerely happy for Goran, they clearly have a special relationship … but there is an advantage and a sadness in his voice that I wasn’t quite waiting for.
“I feel silly about that now.
“You know, he came two points away from Wimbledon’s victory. He wanted to win Wimbledon more than anything else, rather than win the Australian Open, he said, and he was two points away and he feels like he hasn’t done his best when it really matters. So how could it not be (sad)? It really hit me, really. “
Law, who knows Ivanisevic well and was desperate for a win in 2001, said Rafter’s insight provided a fresh perspective on a game he had always seen as the end of fairy tales for a man trying to make amends for three previous heartbreakers on the world’s most famous center field.
“I’ve always seen that game through Goran’s eyes … for me it was Goran, in his words, who didn’t end up in a real state for the rest of his life,” said Law.
“When you realize that Pat Rafter had been in the final the year before, he desperately wanted to win Wimbledon. It was bigger for him than any other tournament and it was big in Australia and was about to end his career. “