King of Swing
Thanks to Australian Patrick Rafter, tennis is sexy again. Rebecca Johnson meets the hotshot from Down Under.
June 1999
Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark.

Mary Ellen Mark
Mary Ellen Mark appreciates the athlete as subject –it’s likely she identifies with the traits of skills and concentration. She’s an apt choice, then, to photograph tennis star Patrick rafter. “What’s amazing about photographing athletes in action,” she says, “is that you can find your mark that you’re going to focus on, and they’ll hit it every time.” Mark’s collection of photographs, American Odyssey, will be published by Aperture in the fall.

Thanks to Australian Patrick Rafter, tennis is sexy again. Rebecca Johnson meets the hotshot from Down Under.

Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark.

Perfect form. 26-year-old Patrick Rafter on the beach in Bermuda. Grooming by Grazia Riverditi for Garren New York Salon.

Sometimes, he eats chocolate.

Once, he wore a collarless shirt in an official tournament.

He has trouble talking about his emotions.

That, however, is pretty much the case to be made against Patrick Rafter. With men's tennis in a prolonged slump ‑Where are the pretty boys? The enfants terribles?‑ it's not surprising that Rafter is the man of the moment. He's gorgeous, he's won the U.S. Open twice, and he is the nicest man I've ever met. If only I could find him.

The plan was to meet at the departure gate for Rafter's flight home to Bermuda. Home is a relative term for tennis players who travel as much as secretaries of state. Rafter would prefer to live in Australia, where he was born and where he is to tennis what Michael Jordan is to basketball. But that, given his schedule, is not possible, so he settled on Bermuda. Right now, the departure lounge is filled with canoodling couples on honeymoon and lantern‑jawed men with whales on their belts, but no Patrick. Finally, I spot him. I think. In his Simpsons T‑shirt and a few days' stubble, Rafter looks like your run‑of‑the mill slacker‑handsome, but no more so than the guy who might rent you Rollerblades at Venice Beach. It's only when you watch him play that the Rafter magic ignites. But just as I spot him, he slips away. I am beginning to think Patrick Rafter does not want to talk about himself.

I catch up with him on the plane, where his head is buried in a Jeffrey Archer paperback. As we get acquainted, a few young girls shuffle past, whisper "Patrick!," and then look away. His appeal to the Teen Beat crowd is well established ‑like the Web page says, "Patrick Rafter: Tennis God." I am prepared to hear him say how embarrassing he finds it; instead, he surprises me: "It's nice. I enjoy it. How could I not?" But after a few warm‑up questions, he turns to me and asks, "Time out?" I am now sure that he doesn't want to talk about himself.

"He's been a great addition to tennis," explains Ten­nis Magazine's Peter Bodo, "because he has a courageous game, but also because he's an attractive player who speaks good English. Tennis is show business, and among the top players you've got Sampras, who has a problem getting his personality across; Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who's Russian, so no one can pronounce his name; and Carlos Moya, who has Patrick Rafter's looks but doesn't speak English well." Rafter is also known as one of the friendlier, more self‑effacing players on the tour, characteristics Bodo traces back to his antipodean roots: "He's a traditional Australian, and they don't produce the McEnroes or Connorses that America does. There's a strong tradition of being a 'fair dinkum Aussie,' a good mate and a team player. They don't trash their opponents, they don't speak up, and they don't swim against the tide."


They might not be aggressive in front of the microphones, but they are on court. When Rafter plays, he does not hang out at the baseline, waiting for his opponent to screw up and boring the crowd to death. He serves and charges, looking for the "put away," the shot that makes the crowd gasp with delight over his opponent's humiliation. In the end, tennis is a game of geometry. The closer you can get to your opponent, the more lethal the angle. It makes for an exciting game to watch, but it's riskier for the player ‑one well‑timed passing shot or a perfectly placed lob and you're dead.

Rafter claims he's not a killer ‑"I go out there and think, OK, here's another tough match; I don't go out there and think, I'm going to kill him." But I have seen him play, and I think there's a killer in him somewhere. To draw it out, I dangle a few names in front of him.

Pete Sampras? "Great player. Better than me. I might be able to do one or two things better than him, but he can do everything." And Pete's opaque personality? "You can't blame him for that. That's who he is. If Pete started trying to pump up the crowd like an Agassi, I think it would make everyone very uncomfortable." Then he begins to get a little nervous. "It doesn't sound like I dislike him, does it?" No, Patrick, it doesn't.

Jim Courier? "An animal." Really? I imagine drunken brawls, smashed lockers, obscenities flying. "Yeah, he's in amazing shape. The fittest player on the tour." Oh.

Marcelo Rios? (The haughty Chilean -if it's safe to trash anyone, it's him.) "He plays good tennis," Rafter offers cautiously, "but I don't like it when people don't show respect for the game."

John McEnroe? "One of my heroes -I really enjoyed watching him play." And what about when he called you a "one-slam wonder" after your first win at the U.S. Open? "Better to win one grand slam than none." At this point, I ask if he is, like, a Buddhist or something? "No. Just a Catholic."

The Catholicism is key. It explains his five brothers and three sisters, all of whom now live within a 40‑minute drive from one another and with whom he remains close. Growing up in a large Catholic family may also have given Rafter the psychic resilience to withstand ten years on the professional tennis tour. Early on, he wasn't one of the hotshots ‑not a wunderkind like Michael Chang, who won his first grand slam at seventeen ‑mostly, Rafter says, because he was still growing and, as he admits, he didn't know what hard work was. He claims his lack of sustained confidence is his biggest weakness, but it may also be the thing that allowed him to persevere. When you grow up with that many siblings, it's hard to sustain the belief that you're the center of the universe. When you lose, as one inevitably does in tennis, it's easier to be philosophical and maintain your perspective.

Like a lot of the great Australian ten­nis players, Rafter grew up in the Outback, the desert of Australia, where courts are made of "antbed," the crumbly dirt that ants use to make their giant anthills. "You get some weird bounces on that surface," he says. I'll bet. Rafter likes to point out how his background belies the notion that tennis is an elitist sport. With all those children, times could be hard in the Rafter family. Early on, his father scrambled to make ends meet as an accountant for a local mining company. When the lode dried up, the family moved to the "Sunshine coast," where they tried their hands at farming. Patrick's job was feeding the chickens. Eventually his father opened a few food shops at local malls where Rafter and his siblings would pitch in, frying food in the kitchen for $4 an hour. The other children in the family also played tennis, but when it became clear that Patrick was the one with the talent, the family rallied around him, and Rafter recalls taking long bus rides or camping with his mom in trailer parks so he could play in local tournaments. Today, Rafter employs three of his family members, including his sister, who runs a children's charity he began last year with some of his prize money, and his mother, who does his books. "Her," he says, "I pay with love."

Rafter says that he'd like to settle down and raise his own family, but as long as he's playing tennis, it's not even a possibility. "It's a funky world I live in," he says, "and it's hard on relationships." The day we meet, the New York Post carries a headline that confirms that observation: SUDDENLY SINGLE: SHIELDS AND AGASSI TO SPLIT. "It's not too surprising," he says of the announcement. "They were living very separate lives." When I say I'll miss the shots of Shields in the stands, Rafter says the only negative thing I've heard him say: "She was out of control." What does he mean? "She'd grimace or put her hands on her face whenever he missed a shot; I would hate that. You look up there for support. If your wife or girlfriend is looking like they don't enjoy it, they should stay home." So who's a good tennis girlfriend? "Mine," he answers, referring to Lara Feltham, the Australian model he's been dating for the past year and a half.

Rafter knows he doesn't have that much longer. At 26, most young men are just beginning to hit their stride in their careers, but tennis players are at their peak. By 30, Rafter expects he'll be done, which will be fine with him. "I'm keen," he says, "to have a life as well. Maybe I'll open a bar or a restaurant." Life after tennis. And what would he have done if he hadn't become a tennis player? "I don't know," he answers. "Tennis is my world. It's all I know." As we begin our descent, Rafter looks down on the aqua sea and the lush foliage of Bermuda. "It's a beautiful island. Have you been?" he asks. When I say no, he looks positively stricken. "I should have given you the window," he chastises himself. That's OK, Patrick, the view from my seat was excellent.