Tennis Prose



Patrick Rafter: The All Time Greatest Sportsman?

By Scoop Malinowski

Tennis can be a cruel sport sometimes. Most pro players are assassins on the court, trained from childhood to defeat the opponent as quickly and efficiently as possible. To get to the top of pro tennis, the emphasis is to win – to be ruthless and merciless. Kindness is usually saved for post match interviews and meet and greets. On the court it’s all business. It has to be that way. If you give an inch, the opponent will take a mile.

Over the years we have seen the most ruthless players achieve historic successes. But in the jungles of pro tennis, there are actually also some exceptions to the rule. One certain renowned player did not operate like most all the others. While he did win two Grand Slam titles, he also managed to show some astounding, unforgettable examples of good sportsmanship, which his opponents fondly remember still today.

Patrick Rafter, the kind-hearted Australian, who won two US Open titles in 1997 and 1998 did something to James Blake that Blake still appreciates to this day. I asked Blake about who some of this favorite players to watch are, when we did a Biofile interview at US Open in 2003.

Here is what James told me when I asked who he liked to watch in the WTA: “Women’s tennis? I can’t say I follow it that much. But maybe I did like watching Steffi Graf. Seemed like a really great person and someone that was going to be nice no matter what happened. A great champion. Another great champion was Patrick Rafter. He’s a class act, someone I admire a lot. I played him two years ago (2001) in (3rd round at) Cincinnati (lost 7-6 (9-7), 6-2 after defeating Arnaud Clement and Julien Boutter). After the match, he was telling me, ‘You could have beaten me today. You could beat me on any given day. It’s just that maybe you didn’t believe you could.’ For him to say that to me…he didn’t need to. He could have just said he played horribly. He was worrying about playing the rest of the tournament, he had a million friends in the locker room, not like he needed one more. He was just helping out a kid that was struggling with his confidence. He really helped me a lot that day. Until then I didn’t feel that I belonged on the ATP Tour at all. After that, I started thinking, Maybe he’s right, maybe I do belong out here. Now I realize I can play with those guys. Patrick really made a difference in my career.”

Another story I heard about Rafter’s sportsmanship involved an off the court decision which proved completely contrary to how the vast majority of other elite ATP pros conduct business. Rafter was offered a six-figure appearance fee to play in an event, just like another Grand Slam champion who was also in the draw. The other famous Hall of Fame champion lost in the first round and took his appearance money and flew back home. Rafter played and lost early in the tournament. When tournament officials attempted to pay Rafter his six-figure appearance fee, Rafter declined to take it, explaining that he didn’t feel he played well enough to accept the money. Rafter did not take the money, he turned down a six-figure check because he didn’t perform to personal standards. A former player told me this story and another ATP insider later confirmed it.

The third example of Patrick Rafter’s extraordinary sportsmanship came to me last week when I was doing a Biofile interview with former Russian top 13 player and two-time winner of the Kremlin Cup, Andrei Cherkasov. I asked Cherkasov to share who were the “funniest players encountered” and he revealed this answer…

“I was talking to my friend from Germany and he sent me a video of when Patrick Rafter played Goran Ivanisevic in the finals of Wimbledon. They showed it on Italian television. So neither of us speaks Italian. But I understood something they said about how nice Rafter is as a human. When I played him in Adelaide in Australia I never forget that it was a point when he hits the volley long. And the linesman called it in…it was in Australia of course [smiles]. And I said, I protested. And Rafter turned around to the chair umpire and said the ball was out. So instead of set point and serving for the set – 9-8 set point for him – it was 9-8 and match point for me in the second set. And then I won the next point and then I won the match. I don’t remember in my career an opponent doing something like this. And it was an important match for him, at his home in Adelaide, on the center court and on TV. And he did this. It was a great match. We played extremely well. What he did is like…that never happened to me before or after.”

If there ever was a finer, more honorable sportsman in pro tennis than Patrick Rafter, if anyone can name him or her, please do…

Addendum: For the second year in a row after winning the US Open (in 1997 and 1998), Rafter donated a sizable amount of his US Open prize money – $180,000 – to charity (children’s hospital).



  • Scoop Malinowski · April 30, 2020 at 11:44 am

    I’ve been thinking hard about this and I can’t think of anything really by other players than even comes close to topping Rafter.

  • Jon King · April 30, 2020 at 1:43 pm

    Nastase comes to mind, what a sweetheart.

  • catherine · April 30, 2020 at 2:34 pm

    Jon – are you being serious ? I can recall a few incidents…..

  • catherine · April 30, 2020 at 2:52 pm

    Bertens and Murray win in Madrid 🙂

    Kiki defended her title – whether this proves anything I don’t know, except she took the virtual tournament seriously, immediately got her playstation and practised assiduously.

    I think Andy plays games a lot.

  • Jon King · April 30, 2020 at 3:22 pm

    catherine….I was hoping that if I picked the most nasty player ever that it would be an obvious joke!!

  • catherine · April 30, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    Jon – you might be surprised how many fans Nasty had in his day, and how many thought he was the world’s greatest comedian.

    Another Oz, John Newcombe, could be quite generous to other players, on and off court. Never heard harsh words about him. BJK was an admirer.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 30, 2020 at 5:09 pm

    Nastase was and is a nice guy off the court. On the court he was a wild man. Villains are good for tennis, need villains as much as sportsmanship gurus.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 30, 2020 at 5:10 pm

    Jon you failed to pick the nastiest player ever. Even Nastase himself called this player (in my book) “the worst prick I ever met.”

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 30, 2020 at 5:12 pm

    Catherine, I read Nastase’s book, good solid wacky crazy eccentric mad genius kind of guy. I met him twice, we did a Biofile, which is posted here on the site in the archives. Nastase is a gentleman off the court. On the court he could be a raving lunatic. But it was all pretty harmless stuff. Vilas has a nice funny story about Nastase in his Biofile which I posted yesterday.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 30, 2020 at 6:28 pm

    Finally did the Corentin Moutet Biofile today after over a year in the making. And boy did it turn out fantastic. One of the best ones I ever did. He really shared so many colorful detailed memories and anecdotes. This is a very interesting player to watch and capable of magic on the court. He said he beat a guy in last round of qualies in Cherbourg with blisters so bad he couldn’t move, he just hit winners every point. He made his first futures final and every match was a marathon. Super Biofile, will share it soon.

  • Jon King · April 30, 2020 at 7:11 pm

    Well Nastase never failed to be interesting even as an older man. There was the time he yelled the F word at Konta during Fed Cup and was banned from the event, asked for the female players room number at her hotel, and asked what color Serena’s baby would be “chocolate with milk?”

  • Jon King · April 30, 2020 at 8:17 pm

    So Tennis Channel is going to have live competitive tennis from Germany. I’ll take it at this point.

  • catherine · May 1, 2020 at 1:35 am

    Murray donated half his Madrid winnings to the NHS and half to the player relief fund. Said how much he enjoyed the ‘tournament’ – chatting to other players etc. Looking ahead I’m doubting we’ll see Andy back on a real court again, not as a singles contender.

    Muguruza takes the opportunity to do ads for Rolex. Garbine is No 1 in the sponsors’ glamour rankings – she’s got the class and now the results. Would be good to see her winning something big when the game returns.

    I was fascinated to learn that the WTA has kind of teaching sessions to help players learn to manage their IG accounts. Nice to know what’s really important.

  • catherine · May 1, 2020 at 3:28 am

    I left a comment which seems to have vanished. Nothing controversial. Just saying Murray donated his Madrid prizemoney to the NHS and players’ relief fund. Also I don’t expect to see him back as a force in singles.

    Muguruza is now No 1 in glamour and sponsors’ favourite. Did some nice stuff for Rolex.Her modelling skills are improving. Some titles as well would be good.

    From the WTA – players can learn from experts how to manage their IG accounts. That’s a priority. So the WTA site can fill itself with free fanzine IG stuff and not bother with decent content.

  • catherine · May 1, 2020 at 3:31 am

    Well, that’s weird. I posted one comment which disappeared and then reappeared and a second one which has now vanished as well.

  • Scoop Malinowski · May 1, 2020 at 6:00 am

    Glitch in the matrix Catherine.

  • catherine · May 1, 2020 at 6:16 am

    Seems ok now

  • catherine · May 1, 2020 at 6:19 am

    Goes off and on. Maybe will settle down.

  • catherine · May 1, 2020 at 8:47 am

    Well, some comments are appearing and others not – so think I’ll take a break for a while.

  • Jon King · May 2, 2020 at 7:39 am

    Lots of exhibitions coming. I suggested this a month ago that tennis was perfectly set up to get on TV with exhibitions with no crowds. Good to see that they are doing so. Try to get some fans by being one of the few live sports available.



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