Wednesday, August 11, 1999

Rafter is man of the hour


Heartthrob just tries to stay 'a regular guy'

BY MICHAEL PERRY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Allison Hunsicker, 16, and Lindasy Carmin, 15, of Bellefontaine, Ohio, cheer for Patrick Rafter Tuesday.
(Gary Landers photos)
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        MASON — Patrick Rafter arrives at the ATP Tennis Center in a white courtesy van. As soon as he steps out of the side door, fans rush to the fence separating them from the parking lot.

        Rafter is late for practice. Monday morning, he flew from Montreal to Cincinnati with just enough time to stop at his hotel, grab a quick bite to eat, then board a van headed to the site of the Great American Insurance ATP Championship.

        Three tournament marshals escort him to the players' lounge. Rafter doesn't have time to sign autographs. He bows his head, almost apologeti cally, and smiles shyly as he makes his way through the crowd.

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Rafter leans on a water cooler as he talks with fans after a practicing.
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        “It's sort of tough,” Rafter said Tuesday. “I don't like the feeling of snubbing people. So many people want autographs. Usually I'm on a pretty tight schedule, and people want something and you can't give it to them. And you can't really be rude.”

        This scene is repeated in city after city.

        Rafter, ranked No.4 in the world, begins defense of his ATP Championship title today against No.60 Daniel Vacek (7 p.m., Center Court).

        His practices attract hundreds of fans. They are lined up five and six deep, taking pictures, filming video, gazing through binoculars. They applaud when he arrives. They don't leave until he leaves.

        Peter Rafter watches all this with amazement.

        “I shake my head, but what can you do?” said Rafter's brother, who often travels with Patrick.

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“Oh, I'm really sexy, mate,” Rafter says mockingly. “No, not at all. It's a funny thing. I consider myself an average-looking guy who seems to be successful in tennis.”
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        Peter has seen fans fall over trying to snap photos and knows of women sending pictures, phone numbers and letters to Patrick.

        Since 1997, when he was named People Magazine's Sexiest Athlete of the Year and won the first of his two U.S. Open titles, Rafter's quest for a simple life and desire to be “a regular guy” have been a challenge.

        That he is humble, polite and considerate only enhance his popularity.

        Rafter grew up one of nine children, wore his brothers' hand-me-downs and slept in a room with four or five siblings. He appreciates what has happened to him and has tried not to let success change him.

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Timothy Hebert, 5, of Dayton holds an oversized ball that Rafter signed for him.
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        “In the grand scheme of things, you've got to be a good person,” he said. “There's no substitute for that.

        “I don't take anything for granted. People go out of their way for you all the time, and they don't have to do that. I don't like to be spoiled. At the end of the day ... demanding things is not the way to go. It's a very selfish way. You see that a lot in sports. It just annoys the (crap) out of me.”

        He hangs around other players and family members who, he says, keep him “grounded.” His girlfriend of 20 months, Australian model Lara Feltham, often is referred to as “down to earth.” Rafter calls his parents his role models and credits them for his upbringing.

        When he returns home to Australia, his siblings have no trouble keeping him in line.

        “He has to do his share of the cleanup,” Peter said. “He doesn't get any special favors from us. I don't think he should.

        “He's changed a little bit. Maybe he's changed for the better. He's respected and looked up to by a lot of people, and I think he's become a very good role model. That's a positive thing. He still maintains his sanity. He still maintains being a regular guy.”

        And a generous guy.

        Rafter often won't publicize donations, because, well, that's not the point. But his contributions earned him the prestigious Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award from the ATP Tour in 1998, one year after it went to Nelson Mandela (and two years after ATP Championship tournament chairman Paul Flory won it).

        Some examples of Rafter's handiwork:

        • The Patrick Rafter Cherish the Children Foundation, which supports charities helping homeless and drug-addicted children.

        • He donated $300,000 to a hospital for terminally ill children after winning the 1997 U.S. Open.

        • He donated $180,000 to a Brisbane hospital after winning last year's U.S. Open.

        Rafter has earned more than $8.4 million in his career but said: “I don't really need it all. I can offer a lot back to other people. You go to hospitals and you see people who are sick, and it's not a very nice thing to see. And you really count how lucky you are.”

        He said his most luxurious purchase has been a car for his mother.

        In October 1997, he returned $75,000 in appearance money after losing a first-round match in Lyon, France, saying, “I didn't do a good job, so why should I get paid for it.”

        Rafter was ranked No.62 at the end of the 1996 season and his career was at a crossroads. He was up to No.21 two years earlier but had fallen on hard times. His desire and dedication were questioned.

        By the end of '97, he was No.2 behind Pete Sampras and won two ATP Tour awards: Most Improved Player and the Edberg Sportsmanship Award. Last year he finished No.4.

        Does he think he receives enough media attention for his tennis?

        “Whatever makes them happy — they can do what they want with me. Anything seems quite positive.”

        Does he think he's sexy?

        “Oh, I'm really sexy, mate,” he said mockingly. “No, not at all. It's a funny thing. I consider myself an average-looking guy who seems to be successful in tennis.”

        Just before he became No.1 on July 26, Rafter was voted the Most Respected Person in Australia.

        “That's politicians, that's everything,” Peter said. “I was at home the week he took the No.1 ranking. There were billboards everywhere congratulating Pat. Large banners. Phones calls from media. Well-wishers. It was quite fantastic.”

        Rafter tries to take it all in stride.

        “Sometimes it'd be nice to sort of cruise around the tennis tour and not too many people worry about you,” Rafter said. “But you know what? The classic thing is you always want what you haven't got. And when you've got it, you don't want it. It's just one of those things.

        “I don't like to upset anyone or anything like that. But there are people out there who aren't going to be happy. That's a part of it, and you have to learn to deal with it.”

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