Pat Rafter fears 'choking' in doubles return with Hewitt
Partnership revives memories of doubles rubber defeat against France, effectively losing Australia the 2001 Davis Cup
Australia's Davis Cup captain Pat Rafter has enjoyed smiting foes on the seniors tour since retiring, but fears he may have bitten off more than he can chew by agreeing to partner Lleyton Hewitt in the Australian Open doubles.
The partnership with Hewitt, the most recent of Australia's grand slam winners, may leave sentimental locals misty-eyed as it hearkens back to the days when Australian men walked tall on the tour at the turn of the century.
For twice US Open champion Rafter, who will return to the A-grade after a 13-year retirement at the age of 41, the feelings are rather different.
Rafter bowed out of tennis after his last matchup with Hewitt, a doubles rubber defeat against France, effectively lost Australia the 2001 Davis Cup.
"Under pressure, I'll probably choke," the former world number one joked. "Expect that to happen."
Rafter's Davis Cup tie with Hewitt is in Australian folklore as one of the most calamitous collaborations in the country's sporting history.
The pair were thrown together for the doubles in a surprise move, with an injured Rafter swapping with doubles specialist Wayne Arthurs.
They lost to Cedric Pioline and Fabrice Santoro in four sets and, amid worries that Rafter's shoulder would not survive another best-of-five singles, Arthurs was thrown to the wolves and lost the rubber and the Cup to France.
"It was shocking, horrible," the straight-talking Rafter recalled ruefully. "I was really bad. So my mates are sending me texts saying, 'Can you please work on your returns?' I'll be definitely the worst player in the competition.
"But I'll have fun. I'm playing with one of the best players in the competition. Figure it's like eating chocolate or having broccoli, sort of equals it out."
Australia have waited 35 years for a home-bred singles champion at Melbourne Park and battle-scarred Hewitt, in his record-equalling 18th Australian Open, could well go the deepest of the local contenders.
"Eighteen in a row, and in the singles main draw as well," said Hewitt. "I wouldn't have dreamt of that as my first one in '97 as a 15-year-old, that's for sure."