These are tough times for Australian sports fans. In
mid-November both England and France upset the Aussie
world-champion rugby team. Then Uruguay eliminated Australia
from 2002 World Cup soccer competition. Last weekend brought
even more disappointment. Not only did France stun the heavily
favored Australian Davis Cup team in the final before 15,000
rabid fans in Melbourne, but the tie also may have been the swan
song of Pat Rafter.
Rafter, as popular an athlete as Australia has known--OUR ST.
PATRICK, as one fan's banner put it--has said he will take an
"indefinite break" from tennis at year's end. He has denied he
is retiring, but at age 28, with a bum right shoulder that
hinders his serve-and-volley game, the odds of his returning
aren't good. The conventional wisdom was that Rafter would help
win the cup for Australia in 2001 and then go gently into that
good night. "He hasn't got his name on the Davis Cup trophy
yet," said Lleyton Hewitt before the tie. "I think it'll be not
right if his name isn't engraved on it."
That it still isn't is largely the work of Nicolas Escude.
Indefatigable and fleet afoot, Escude played an unlikely
starring role in last weekend's drama. The only player in the
original singles lineup ranked outside the top 10, he beat
Hewitt, the world's No. 1-ranked player, on Friday to give the
French a 1-0 lead. On Sunday, in the decisive fifth rubber, with
the grass court at Rod Laver Arena resembling a grazed savanna,
Escude outlasted a fill-in opponent, Wayne Arthurs, 7-6, 6-7,
6-3, 6-3. While his shotmaking was unsurpassed, Escude's court
coverage and scrambling made the biggest impression. The tie,
one might say, went to the runner. "As long as I go for every
ball," he said, "I know I have a chance."
A natural lefty who learned to play tennis with his right hand,
Escude, 25, is among the most talented and erratic players on
tour, capable of both breathtaking and breathtakingly bad
tennis. No stranger to success at Melbourne Park, he reached the
semifinals of the Australian Open in 1998. Barely a year later,
his motivation dulled by the death of his father, he was out of
the top 100. In 2001 he reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals, yet
before last Friday he'd gone three months without winning a tour
Escude has, however, been consistently strong in Davis Cup play.
In the fifth rubber of France's quarterfinal tie against
Switzerland this year, he was down match point in the fifth set
to George Bastl. Escude rebounded to win 8-6. With last
weekend's success, his singles record in Cup play is 8-0. He
will finish 2001 ranked No. 27.
Aside from Escude's heroics, the tie will be recalled for the
questionable tactics of John Fitzgerald, the Australian captain.
His first Brenlyesque gambit was to have a grass court installed
atop the hard surface of Rod Laver Arena. The logic: Grass is
Rafter's best surface and would shorten points, causing him less
wear and tear. Problem was, grass is the worst surface for
Hewitt, who had lost his last grass-court match, a five-setter
at Wimbledon, to...Escude.
Fitzgerald's bigger gaffe came on Saturday, when he panicked and
substituted Hewitt and Rafter for the doubles team of Todd
Woodbridge, one of the best doubles players in history, and
Arthurs. The Aussies fell with little resistance to veteran
serve-and-volleyer Cedric Pioline and crafty junkballer Fabrice
Santoro. Discussing his decision after the match, Fitzgerald
said, "There's a very fine line between genius and idiot, isn't
there?" Then it was revealed that Rafter, who had beaten
Sebastien Grosjean on Friday, was feeling too much pain in his
right arm to play singles again.
On Sunday, Hewitt made fast work of Grosjean. Fitzgerald had to
summon the 64th-ranked Arthurs to face Escude. Rafter could only
look on dejectedly as Arthurs fought gamely but lost to a
superior player. "We took a risk in doubles, and it didn't work,
but it was a risk we had to take," said Rafter, explaining that
after feeling soreness in his arm on Saturday morning he knew he
had only one more match in him, and he agreed with Fitzgerald
that Australia should go for the jugular in the doubles.
Escude is preternaturally calm during his matches, but he
erupted on Sunday evening. When he alighted from his teammates'
shoulders, he chased them around the grass, dousing them with
champagne. "It's amazing," he said. "It's like a fairly tale."
One that didn't end happily ever Rafter.
COLOR PHOTO: MARK BAKER/REUTERS
Escude was indefatigable and fleet afoot. The tie, one might
say, went to the runner.