by David Law
Pat Rafter was pushed all the way before completing a 7-6(4), 7-6(1) victory in a thrilling final against John McEnroe at the ATP Champions Tour event in Delray Beach on Tuesday night.
Thirty-seven year-old Rafter had to endure an hour and 56 minutes of grueling battle against McEnroe, a man 14 years his senior, in order to earn his maiden Delray Beach ITC title. The final was played under the lights on Delray Beach’s Stadium Court just before James Blake and Taylor Dent were due on court in the ATP World Tour event, which has been played alongside the Champions tournament. It was a spectacular showcase of the serve-and-volley game. McEnroe, at 51, showed that he is still the nimble mover and canny volleyer that he ever was, holding strong on serve throughout the match and forcing both sets to be decided with tie-breaks.
It was in the tie-breaks that Rafter was able to step up his game. The two-time US Open Champion responded well to the pressure situations, producing an array of spectacular passing shots and capitalizing on some critical errors from the McEnroe racquet. McEnroe seethed at a couple of questionable line-calls, and Rafter did well to diffuse the flare-ups with a carefully placed one-liners.
It is Rafter’s third title on the ATP Champions Tour, and he is delighted to have another trophy in his cabinet after winning events in Graz and London last year at the AEGON Masters Tennis. The Australian also leaps to the top of the South African Airways rankings.
“It’s really nice to win,” he said. “I’ve had such a great week in Delray Beach, it’s been a great event and winning the title makes it that bit sweeter. There was nothing in the match. And tie-breakers are a lottery so it could have gone either way so I’m pleased and relieved.”
Rafter admitted that he had been feeling the pressure ahead of the final.
“I was a bit nervous before the match,” he said. “I’m the young guy on the Tour and I’m supposed to beat John because he’s 51. But this guy serves so brilliantly I can’t read his serve at all and he covers the net so well, he is unreal. The best 51-year-old tennis player in the world by far.”
Despite losing, McEnroe thoroughly enjoyed the match, which was played in front of a packed crowd of nearly 3,000 enthralled Floridian tennis fans.
“It was great,” he said. “It was a fun match to play and it felt like an old school match, it was just awesome. I think we showed the young bucks how it’s done a little bit and how to have a little bit of variety in your game. It was a lot of fun. If the score was just reversed it would have been a little bit better!”
In the match to decide third and fourth place at the Delray Beach ITC, Mats Wilander defeated Pat Cash 6-2, 2-6, 10-5 (Champions’ Tie-Break). It means that Wilander not only scoops the third place spot, but also moves into third position in the South African Airways rankings for the ATP Champions Tour.
The ATP Champions Tour will now move on to Zurich for the inaugural BNP Paribas Zurich Open (March 9-13), and after that will arrive in Bogota, Columbia for the city’s first ever ATP Champions Tour event (March 18-21).
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