Cramps cost him potential victory while leading Andre Agassi in the semifinals of his home Grand Slam and 13 years later, Pat Rafter’s mates aren’t about to let him hear the end of it.
With Melbourne’s temperature soaring on Wednesday, Rafter played his first match since losing the doubles in the 2001 Davis Cup, incidentally with the same man beside him, Lleyton Hewitt.
The kick serve and low lunging half-volleys were a throwback to the Rafter of old, but there were none of the wayward ball tosses for the obligatory “sorry mate”.
The Fanatics were in full voice with the crowd hanging on the Queenslander’s every shot.
But for all the hype and nostalgia, Hewitt’s success in coaxing his countryman, and now Davis Cup captain, out of retirement for a crack at the men’s doubles fell at the first hurdle.
The Australian scratch pairing went down to American Eric Butorac and South African Raven Klassen 6-4 7-5 and in typical self-deprecating Rafter style, the 41-year-old was quick to shoulder the blame, every bit of it.
“It started off alright. I made a return the very first game. It was the last one I made,” he joked. “It was always my big concern out here. I thought I could serve OK and sort of volley OK but my return was awful at times, it lived up to expectations … I was pretty nervous, I was copping it from the locker-room. We were having a lot of fun, at my expense.
“A lot of my mates were saying, ‘don’t cramp, it’s going to be a hot day, make sure you drink lots of fluids’.”
The idea to reform started out as a joke in Davis Cup training, but planted a lingering seed in Hewitt’s mind, an itch to dig up the glory days of old when the pair spearheaded Australia’s Davis Cup charge in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
When the court announcer reminded the crowd Rafter made his ATP Tour debut in 1992, Rafter gave an embarrassed laugh before acknowledging the applause.
His first crisp backhand volley winner drew the loudest cheer.
He even had his great rival Goran Ivanisevic – the man to cause all that heartache in that 2002 Wimbledon final – among his support camp.
“I was waiting for him to heckle me, but he didn’t,” Rafter said.
“He gave it to me afterwards, He couldn’t believe how bad my return was … He takes the p--- out of me and he thinks it’s funny.”
Hewitt, who only 24 hours earlier lost a sapping five-setter to Andreas Seppi, admitted it had been a frustrating couple of days, but walked away from the summer with the satisfaction of having won the Brisbane title, where he stunned Roger Federer in the final.
“As I've always said, Pat helped me out when I first came into the Davis Cup team as a 15, 16-year-old. He took me under his wing, helped me out. We obviously played some massive Davis Cup matches together as well. We’ve got a pretty good friendship. Yeah, it's just nice to be out there. We still enjoy it, have a bit of a laugh,” Hewitt said.
While both established players in the doubles discipline, the unheralded victors, Butorac and Klassen, were more thrilled at the chance to play on a big stadium court before such a large crowd.
“I had to check the draw three times to realise what I was seeing. But it was an absolute honour to play out here with Pat. I’m actually renting an apartment that has an autographed t-shirt framed in my bedroom,” Butorac said.
It’s back to Davis Cup captain duties for Rafter. Back to helping the likes of Hewitt, Bernard Tomic and co as the team prepares to take on France.
He might want to check his phone first. A string of messages from his mates congratulating the old boy on getting through the match without cramping likely await.