Rafter in mood for tilt at title

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 April, 1999, 12:00am

Hong Kong fans knew they had seen a future star - even if the star himself was sick.

Patrick Rafter's debut at the Salem Open, in 1994, was an unforgettable one.

The future pin-up boy of world tennis surprised most people by reaching the final and a meeting with crowd favourite Michael Chang, who, at the time, was still searching for his first Salem title.

Ultimately, Chang was never threatened. Not only was he in fine form, Rafter was suffering from a fever and never able to mount a serious challenge. The Australian, however, endeared himself to Hong Kong fans by refusing to withdraw despite his obvious illness.

Rafter reached the final again in 1997. By this time, he was a more complete player, just months away from the form which would earn him his first Grand Slam title - the 1997 US Open.

His opponent was once again Chang and Rafter this time was in fine health. Chang, however, aiming for his third title in Hong Kong, was not to be denied - even though he needed two days to overcome his opponent.

At match point to Chang, the heavens opened and the players were forced off the court. Continuous rain eventually resulted in the match being postponed until the next day.

Both players, along with a handful of eager fans, were up bright and early to contest the last few points.

In fact, there were just two. Rafter saved one match point but Chang took the title on his next serve.

Rafter has since surpassed Chang in Grand Slam victories, collecting his second successive US Open title last year.

'I've always done well in Hong Kong and this time I'm hoping that I can go one better and actually win the title,' he said.

He has struggled recently. At the prestigious Indian Wells tournament last month, he lost his opening match to German Nicolas Keifer in three sets.

Before that, at Scottsdale, he was beaten by his young compatriot, Lleyton Hewitt, in the second round. It was his second defeat of the year to Hewitt, having lost to him at the Sydney tournament in January.

Rafter failed to get past the third round of the season's opening Grand Slam, the Australian Open, losing to Sweden's Thomas Enqvist in four sets.

However, Hong Kong has so far been good to the 27-year- old and few would write off his chances of becoming the seventh player in 10 years to lift the Salem Open.