'It wasn't so much the heat but the humidity was getting to me and I couldn't control my sweating'
Patrick Rafter, battling the heat and the humidity and a game Jonas Bjorkman, stumbled but regained his footing to ease into the quarter-finals of the Salem Open at Victoria Park yesterday.
A hot and bothered Rafter needed to dig deep into his reserves before closing out a hard-fought 6-4, 5-7, 6-3 victory over his one-time doubles partner on centre court to earn himself a showdown with top seeded Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten in the top half of the draw.
'It wasn't so much the heat but the humidity was getting to me and I couldn't control my sweating. It was annoying because the court was wet anyway. Then your shirt, your socks and even shoes get wet. I should have changed another pair of shorts and my shoes which were very wet in the end. It can become dangerous and you just have to be careful,' said world number 15 Rafter, who went through four T-shirts before completing his gritty 136-minute victory over the Swede.
Also through to the last eight were Kuerten who ousted Armenia's Sargis Sargsian 6-2, 7-5 and power-serving Australian 'Scud' Mark Philippoussis who came back from one set down to outlast American Chris Woodruff 6-7 (4-7), 7-5, 6-3. Sixth-seeded Marcelo Rios was due to play former French Open champion Sergi Bruguera later last night.
In a match that began in brilliant sunshine and ended in near darkness, 27-year-old Rafter continued his quest to win the Hong Kong title that has eluded him by beating the 55th-ranked Bjorkman, who last year teamed up with Rafter to win the Australian Open doubles title.
Rafter has reached two Salem Open finals - in 1994 and 1997 - but lost both times to American Michael Chang, this year the eighth seed in the draw. And yesterday, the two-time US Open champion from Queensland showed signs of slipping up when he allowed Bjorkman, a finalist in this tournament in 1995, to come back from 5-3 down and win the second set, forcing a deciding set.
Rafter had match point while leading 40-30 in the ninth game, but Bjorkman refused to lie down and won a string of lovely cross-court winners from the baseline to break the Australian at 4-5 before holding serve. Bjorkman cracked another baseline winner in the next game before Rafter pushed a difficult half-volley into the net to throw the Swede a lifeline at one-set apiece. But Rafter, this year's Wimbledon finalist, raised his game again in the final set as he kept 28-year-old Bjorkman under control, breaking the Swede in the eighth game to go 5-3 up after one of the best rallies of the match.
Bjorkman played a deft drop shot which Rafter scurried to retrieve. The two-time US Open champion then played a forehand which Bjorkman volleyed to Rafter's trusty backhand for the service break. It was then business as usual as Rafter served out for the match with all guns blazing, beating his friend and former doubles partner who netted on the last point.
'Jonas played very well and if he had kept it up, I wouldn't have gone with him. He was serving well and returning well. The first set was a bonus for me to get out of,' said Rafter.
'In the first set, I felt more comfortable and I was mixing up my serving and got to a winning position in the second set, but the combination of not making enough first serves, feeling the pressure and Jonas making some good returns got the better of me.
'Once Jonas gets on a roll, he's a very good returner and you don't want to give him too much confidence.'
Asked about his second set lapse, Rafter replied: 'I had my chances but I had to start over again in the third set and that made the job a little bit harder. In the end, I was lucky.'
Rafter and Bjorkman know each other's game inside out and that made Rafter's victory all the more difficult.
'We can also play some very good tennis. I know Jonas's game and he knows my game,' Rafter said.