It's time for Patrick Rafter to give the "I hate being a sex symbol" speech. The world's No. 3-ranked male tennis player has just been asked about his boisterous female fans—the ones who unfurl "Our Sex God Pat" banners and whistle when the sinewy Australian changes his shirt midmatch—and it's the moment for him to grumble, "That stuff is silly; all I care about is tennis." Instead, Rafter, 26, grins. "Would you complain if chicks wanted to go after you?" he asks. "It's nice having that image. I remember when women wouldn't look at me twice."
Lately it seems a lot of folks are paying closer attention to Patrick Rafter, and not just because of his lady-killer looks. There is also his kamikaze tennis game, a blend of booming serves and tireless net-rushing that in 1997 helped him become the first Australian to win the coveted U.S. Open title in 24 years. Heading into this year's Open, which begins Aug. 31, the 6'1" Rafter has already racked up four tournament championships this season, including a recent hard-fought victory over the decade's best player, Pete Sampras. "He hung in there and gutted it out," said Sampras. "That's what it takes."
His exuberance doesn't hurt either. At a time when exciting female stars like Venus Williams have been hogging the spotlight, Rafter and his samurai-style ponytail are giving men's tennis some much-needed flair. "He knows the crowd loves him, and he responds in a nice way," says NBC tennis commentator Bud Collins. "Women are just crazy about Patrick. I mean, my wife is ready to leave me for him."
Yet for all his razzle-dazzle on the court, away from tennis Rafter seems to be a regular guy. He travels without a coach, trainer or entourage, and he likes to get around in a lowly moped, despite some $5 million in career tournament earnings and millions more in endorsement deals. He once returned a five-figure appearance fee after playing poorly and quietly donated nearly a third of his $650,000 U.S. Open purse to a Brisbane, Australia, children's hospital. He also says things like, "Money is nice, but I came into tennis thinking that if I can buy a two-bedroom home, I'm ahead of 90 percent of the people in this world." Good looks and good sense—is this guy for real?
One biased observer thinks so. "Patrick has always been a gentleman," says his mother, Jocelyn, 58, "from the time he was this little bloke who opened the car door and put me in." One of nine children (five brothers, three sisters), young Patrick was raised in Mount Isa, a mining town in Queensland, Australia, by Jim Rafter, a former accountant who now runs two sandwich shops and a bakery, and Jocelyn, a homemaker. He was hooked on tennis by his big brother Geoff, so much so that as soon as he finished high school he and Geoff traveled to Europe to play in tournaments. "They slummed it," says brother Peter, 28. "They slept in automatic-teller enclosures."
Patrick's progress so impressed Geoff, now 31, that he gave up his own tennis ambitions to become his brother's temporary coach—a move that paid off with Rafter's first professional title in 1994. A wrist injury slowed his ascent into the sport's elite, but the unheralded Rafter's win at the 1997 U.S. Open was "the most incredible moment you've ever had, multiplied by five," he says. "It was a dream come true."
And it's a dream the Aussie hero is sharing with his family. Brother Stephen, 35, is his agent, sister Louise, 27, handles his publicity Down Under, and Peter organizes his schedule. "We give him a hard time and bring him back to earth," says Peter, and Rafter admits, "With eight brothers and sisters, you can't have much arrogance."
Good thing, because a swelled head is what usually comes with the kind of attention Rafter, one of PEOPLE'S Sexiest Men Alive last year, gets from admirers. Many of them will be heartbroken to learn that the Bermuda resident is off the market—he's happily dating Australian model Lara Feltham, 27. And Rafter makes it clear that, unlike so many moody superstars, he's a bloke who knows how to have fun. "You try and get the most out of what you're given," he says. "And you have to enjoy the moment."
Grant Pick in Cincinnati and Don Sider in Miami
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