Pat Rafter has not even nervously shanked one of his famous kick serves into the net and already the banter between two of Australia’s greatest players is flowing ahead of their surprise doubles pairing at this year’s Australian Open.
The 41-year-old Australian Davis Cup captain has not played an ATP-level match in more than 11 years, but has heeded a call to team with Lleyton Hewitt in the men’s doubles.
Both are two-time former Grand Slam tournament champions and have risen to the top of the ranks in world tennis, but it was 32-year-old Hewitt’s decision to ask his Davis Cup captain and former teammate to step out of retirement to boost his matchplay at Australian Open 2014.
“I don't know. I think he still thinks he's got it in him, so... hope I don't have to carry him too much,” Hewitt said dryly.
“I actually asked him a little while ago. Yeah, he still hits a lot at the Davis Cup ties, works us out a bit. Yeah, it's just a bit of fun. It will be nice on my off days, hopefully I'm still in the singles, on my off days to go out and play dubs with Pat.
“He's hitting the ball well enough. Beat (Goran) Ivanisevic and (Tim) Henman and those guys over in the seniors tour. Just going to be a bit of fun for both of us.”
When Rafter faced the media after Hewitt’s pre-tournament press conference, a look of “what am I doing here?” drew plenty of laughter as did an impromptu interruption from Hewitt.
“This is a joke. What are you doing here? This is why you wanted to play. There should be two chairs, we're playing doubles. Look at this,” Hewitt chided.
“It's about me. You can go away,” Rafter replied. “Give me a little bit. That's what I have to deal with.”
The last time the pair played together was in Rafter’s last match on tour, where he and Hewitt lost a crucial doubles tie on Rod Laver Arena to Fabrice Santoro and Cedric Pioline in the Davis Cup final against France.
“It was shocking, horrible. 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 out there,” Rafter said.
“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 equal it out.”
A confusion over whether he was actually eligible to enter the doubles draw ensued with Rafter informed he was in the clear, as he had not officially retired.
“I thought I was,” he said. “Do you have to sign something that says you’re officially retired?”
Retirement paperwork taken care of, Rafter and Hewitt will play American Eric Butorac and South African Raven Klaasen in the first round at Melbourne Park, Hewitt insisted it was a one-off, with no chance of reuniting for a revenge task against France in Davis Cup next month.
“I doubt it. We won't have anybody to sit on the side of the court. We can't do that,” Hewitt said.
His Davis Cup teammate Bernard Tomic weighed in on the unexpected pairing and hinted not to write off their team coach in a hurry.
“He still beats me sometimes in doubles in the squad (Davis Cup training). Don't worry, he's good,” Tomic grinned.
As to whether he would follow suit and join the likes of Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl in the coaching ranks on tour, Rafter made it clear that was never going to happen.
Davis Cup coaching and the occasional stint playing on the Seniors Tour was enough.
But if he’s worked on his returns, as his mates suggested, a Davis Cup player-coach set-up for the doubles may be arranged.
“I hope not. There would have to be food poisoning, sicknesses. That would be my worst nightmare.”