Rafter eyes 2001

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PHILADELPHIA (Sports Network) - After battling right shoulder problems for the past two seasons, Patrick Rafter will look forward to 2001 to get his career back on track.

The Australian star underwent arthroscopic surgery last October to repair the shoulder, which had been causing him a great deal of pain from a tear and inflammation.

The two-time U.S. Open champion was forced to pull out in the first round of the 1999 Open because of the ailment.

Rafter, who captured the 1997 and '98 U.S. Opens, achieved world No. 1 status, albeit for one week, in July of last season. Since then, he has seen his overall ranking slip to No. 15.

By reaching No. 1, Rafter became the fourth-oldest player to turn the trick, accomplishing the feat at 26 years and eight months. Only countryman John Newcombe, Thomas Muster and Ilie Nastase were older than Rafter when they assumed the lofty position.

Rafter, who, oddly enough, does not travel with a full-time coach, has managed no better than a 32-18 match record this year, with the highlight being an appearance in the 2000 Wimbledon final. Pat lost to the legendary Pete Sampras in four sets at the All-England Club that particular Sunday.

The 6-1, 190-pounder's lone title in the new millennium came at the Heineken Trophy event in the Netherlands -- a final Wimbledon tune-up.

The immensely-popular Aussie has reached three finals this season, going 1-2 in those encounters. He recently lost to upstart Frenchman Arnaud Clement in the final at the Lyon Grand Prix.

The serve-and-volley specialist, Rafter excels on any surface that's not clay, as evidenced by his 14-2 grass record and 5-2 carpet mark this season. The bad shoulder has held him to just a 13-10 record on hardcourts in 2000, but that's still better than his 2-4 ledger on the dirt.

Rafter, as usual, has shined in Davis Cup play this year, helping the reigning champion Aussies reach their second Cup final in as many years. He was a perfect 2-0 in the tie versus Brazil, including a straight-sets victory against former world No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten, who is 1-3 against his Aussie counterpart in 2000.

Rafter is a stellar 14-7 in his lifetime Davis Cup singles matches.

The Aussie squad will battle host Spain in Barcelona in the first week of December, and I like the Spaniards there, with the tie being staged on clay -- the Australians' worst and the Spaniards' best surface.

Swedish stud Magnus Norman, who was routed by Pat, 6-2, 6-1, 6-2, in the second round at the 1997 U.S. Open, has called Rafter the "best I've ever played against." Norman said the amicable Aussie was "in a league of his own," and that's after taking Sampras and Andre Agassi into consideration.

When asked about Rafter's weaknesses, Norman said, "Better ask someone else."

I should point out to Norman, who's 0-3 in his career against Rafter, that Pat's only a combined 8-17 lifetime against Pete and Andre, including just 1-2 this year. Rafter's 1-1 versus Agassi in 2000, with the victory coming in the form of an epic five-set semifinal battle at Wimbledon -- one of the best-played matches over the last 20 years. Rafter's 2000 loss to Agassi came in straight sets in the fourth round of the Tennis Masters Series-Miami.

Rafter, who will turn 28 on December 28, owns just 10 career titles in 10 years as a pro, but he's still the most-popular athlete on the circuit, as evidenced by a recent fan poll on the ATP's official web site. He edged out Norman for the honor.

And according to yet another internet poll, Rafter has the best hair in the men's game. Take that for what it's worth.

When Rafter titled for the second time at Flushing Meadows, he became only the fourth Aussie male to record at least two Grand Slam titles in the Open era, joining "Rocket" Rod Laver (5), Newcombe (5) and Ken Rosewall (4).

Rafter, who closed out his 1999 campaign as the 16th-ranked player in the world (because of the bad wing), has shown glimpses of his former self this year, leading me to believe that he can return in full force next season, which starts in less than a month-and-a-half.

Can he make it all the way back to No. 1? That remains to be seen. But it's not out of the realm of possibility that he can land in the top-5 once again, just as he did when the 1997 and '98 seasons were all said and done.

It's also hard to say if Rafter is still Australia's best player, considering the emergence of super teen Lleyton Hewitt, Rafter's Davis Cup teammate. Hewitt's currently ranked sixth in the world and reached the 2000 U.S. Open semis, where he lost to Sampras.

One thing I do know about Pat is that he's a tremendous ambassador for the sport. When the Aussie's not battling on the court, he's doing things like establishing the Patrick Rafter Cherish The Children Foundation, a charity for emotionally, mentally, and physically-challenged children. He's been quoted as saying, "If I can help one child it is worth everything to me."

And Rafter has received the Diploma of Honour, awarded by the International Olympic Committee for Fair Play, as well as the ATP Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award.

The ATP's Newcomer of the Year in 1993 and Most Improved Player in 1997, Rafter, I'm sure, would like to be the Comeback Player of the Year in 2001.

And if the 2000 Olympian is unable to recapture his former brilliance, the Queensland native can always retire to his digs in Bermuda to enjoy fishing, golf, and, of course, relaxing on the beach -- thanks to career earnings in excess of $9 million.

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