Rafter keeps the crowd happy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 October, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 October, 1996, 12:00am

Australian Patrick Rafter, basking in the sunshine and perpetual screaming of young fans, defeated American Vincent Spadea 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 to win the Marlboro Championships singles title yesterday at Victoria Park.

The 23-year-old Rafter's victory, in front of almost 3,000 toll-free and care-free fans, provided a fitting culmination to a hectic seven days during which the $5.65 million tournament experienced many 'firsts'.

It was the first time in the championships' nine-year history that play spilled over to the Monday because of rain; the first time it was won by an Australian; the first time none of the top seeds made it to the semi-finals; the first time two players from outside the world's top 50 reached the final; the first time it rained on a Sunday . . . and there were probably many more.

Most gratifying, though, was the fact that, for the first time, it appeared that both finalists wanted to win badly.

Former winner Ivan Lendl was always the true professional. But neither he, nor other previous champions, displayed the kind of passion and determination showed by yesterday's finalists.

Rafter, ranked 56 at the end of last week, was quick to point this out.

'You definitely can't fault us for not trying,' said Rafter after the 155-minute match. 'At least we gave it 100 per cent. We both wanted to win and there was blood and guts spilt out there.' The fact that plenty of money was riding on the result was clearly a huge incentive for the two players.

Rafter, as champion, earned $1.7 million while Spadea, had he won, would have taken home $1.4 million because he was a lucky loser entry into the last four after American Richey Reneberg withdrew with a stomach virus.

Rafter proved a popular alternative to Hong Kong's foremost teen tennis idol, Michael Chang.

The baby-faced Australian had a pack of young female fans, some of the 2,500 people who were allowed to watch the final free of charge, yelping at his every move. And he obliged by throwing his sweaty T-shirt into the stands.

Rafter admitted that he loved every minute of it.

'It's the kind of attention I like. I'd be lying if I said I didn't like it. It's a lot of fun,' he said.

The 'fun' part is what Rafter hopes will help him regain the heights that saw him rise to 20 in the world, before the pressure of being touted as Australia's next Pat Cash, began to weigh on his mind.

'I can handle it all now and just want to have fun and play well,' he said.

Spadea, a 22-year-old of whom much is also expected, appeared to be fighting a battle against himself.

While his on-court persona may seem like a budding John McEnroe with a lot to learn about throwing tantrums, Spadea, in his post-final press conference, was barely audible.

'There is room for improvement,' he whispered. 'Even if I had won that match, I know that there are things that are not quite right.' Meanwhile, Canadian Grant Connell, who yesterday needed stitches to close a nasty wound on his recently shaved head, teamed up with Zimbabwe's Byron Black to win the doubles tournament.

The pair beat Australians Andrew Florent and Joshua Eagle 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 7-6 (7-3) in the final.

Connell, who shaved his head on Saturday after a bet with Florent, hit his head against a bleacher when leaving the practice court yesterday.