NEW YORK -- Patrick Rafter, spearheading a revival of Australia's proud tennis tradition, reached his second Grand Slam semifinal this year Thursday at the U.S. Open with a classic attack reminiscent of his famous mentors.
Rafter's 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, 6-2 victory over Magnus Larsson bore all the hallmarks of the great players of Australia's past, from John Newcombe to Rod Laver, from Tony Roche to Ken Rosewall to Pat Cash.
The link between the longhaired Rafter and those champions is evident in his serve-and-volley style, his powerfully sculpted legs, and the pleasure he takes from the game - even down to clowning a bit at match point as he did against Larsson.
Roche is Rafter's tutor at the major tournaments these days, and Newcombe has been talking to Rafter about strategy and desire in an effort to build his confidence and see him fulfill his promise. For Australians, their lost dominance in the sport is seen as something of a national challenge to recover, and they are banking on players like Rafter and Davis Cup teammate Mark Philippoussis to reclaim it.
Rafter's emergence this year as a championship contender - he finished the past two years ranked 68th and 62nd as he struggled with injuries - began in February in Australia when he came back from two sets down to beat Cedric Pioline in a thrilling, five-set Davis Cup duel.
"I discovered something that I hadn't found before within myself," Rafter said of that match. "Just that I could fight. I felt good fighting. ... So I thank Cedric Pioline for my success."
That victory, coming right after Rafter lost in the first round of the Australian Open, made the 24-year-old realize he could beat top players. A month later, that feeling was reinforced when he reached the final of a tournament in Philadelphia, where he pushed Pete Sampras to three tough sets.
Rafter would reach the finals of four other events, falling each time in close matches against excellent players, including Michael Chang in Hong Kong and Carlos Moya two weeks ago on Long Island.
At the French Open in June, Rafter reached his first Grand Slam semifinal before losing to former champion Sergi Bruguera in a fourth-set tiebreaker.
Coming into the U.S. Open, Rafter had already achieved his year's goal of cracking the top 30 - he was seeded No. 13 - and his victory over Larsson will put the Aussie into the top 10 when the next ATP Tour rankings come out next week.
"I was thinking about that on the court," Rafter said. "All the dreams, all the goals, all the things I've worked for."
Rafter paid homage to the Australian champions who preceded him and who have helped him so much as he's overcome wrist and ankle problems the past two years and a shoulder injury more recently.
"They really are idols for a lot of us," Rafter said. "They were like gods when we were growing up. Then when you meet them, it's great to see they're just like regular guys. It's great to have the Aussie guys in your corner. Rochey will give me a call, or Newk will give me a call, just to talk about things and help me along if I'm going through a rough patch."
Rafter, who beat Andre Agassi in the fourth round, faced few rough patches against the baseline-hugging Larsson. Though the wind played havoc with balls for a second straight day, Rafter's relentless net attacks following backhand slices allowed him to cut through the breezes.
"It was very tricky. very hard to hit your shots and put the ball where you want to," Rafter said. "I played pretty well under the circumstances. You just go with your strengths, what you think is working well. I felt my slice was working well."
Larsson was certainly impressed, comparing Rafter to Stefan Edberg.
"He's really athletic, moves well at the net, and it's hard to pass him," Larsson said. "He's picking up his baseline game a little bit better every year. He's improved his game a lot the last few years. He's going to improve even more. He could be a real danger."
Asked the main difference between Rafter's game and Edberg's, Larsson smiled and said, "Seven Grand Slams."
When the laughter that brought stopped, he added, "Maybe six soon."
Despite Rafter's fine play against Agassi and Larsson, and despite his rise through the rankings this year, he is by no means cocky about his prospects of winning the title or even getting to the final.
"I still think I can lose any round," said Rafter, who next faces the winner of the Chang-Marcelo Rios match. "I also know I have a chance of winning."
Rafter is the first Australian to reach the U.S. Open semifinals since Wally Masur in 1993, and if he reaches the final he would be the first Aussie to go that far since Ken Rosewall lost to Jimmy Connors in 1974. The last Australian champion was Newcombe in 1973.
Australian men have won the U.S championships 15 times, starting with Frank Sedgman in 1951 and 1952. The others champions included Mal Anderson (1957), Ashley Cooper (1958), Neale Fraser (1959, '60), Roy Emerson (1961, '64), Laver (1962, '69), Fred Stolle (1966), Newcombe (1967, '73).
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