Pat Rafter is making an unexpected comeback to play doubles with Lleyton Hewitt at the Australian Open.
The presence of the Australian pair came as a big surprise when the draw for the men’s doubles was revealed yesterday.
Australia Davis Cup captain Rafter, 41, has not played a tour-level match since retiring in 2001, although he did look in good shape in winning the seniors event at the Royal Albert Hall last month.
He also teamed up with Hewitt in his last professional match, the 2001 Davis Cup final against France, but it was not a happy experience.
Two-time US Open champion Rafter recalled: “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.
“But I’ll have fun. I’m playing with one of the best players in the competition. I figure it’s like eating chocolate or having broccoli, it sort of equals out.
“Doubles, half a court. I think I can do that.”
The pair, who were drawn against Eric Butorac of the US and South Africa’s Raven Klaasen in round one, are good friends and Hewitt is looking forward to the experience.
He said: “I actually asked him a little while ago. While we’re still able to move around the court together, it’s nice we can go out there and play in a grand slam.”
There remains a possibility the match will not happen should Hewitt go on a run in the singles. And, given the 32-year-old’s recent form, that appears a distinct possibility.
Hewitt has not lost a match yet this season, beating Roger Federer to win the title in Brisbane and then seeing off Andy Murray in an exhibition clash at Kooyong on Friday.
First up for the Australian favourite is 24th seed Andreas Seppi tomorrow, while 16th seed Kei Nishikori and world No 1 Rafael Nadal are also in his section.
Hewitt said: “Last year’s draw wasn’t easy, this year’s isn’t going to be easy either.
“My ball striking at the moment is as good as it’s been in a long time. I feel confident with what I’m doing down my end. I’ve just got to go out there and execute it.”
The big match of the second day at Melbourne Park will undoubtedly be the clash between Nadal and great Australian hope Bernard Tomic.
It is a rough draw for both players, with mercurial 21-year-old Tomic showing off his considerable talents by reaching the final of the ATP Tour event in Sydney at the weekend.
Tomic won the title in 2013 but was well beaten by Juan Martin del Potro this time around.
Rafter said: “I expect it will be a great match. I was really excited the way Bernie played in Sydney, how he backed that up and defended as well as he did.
“Obviously the final didn’t go to script for him. He played one loose game, Del Potro played great from then on and gave him no chance.
“I hope that’s a warning for him. If you give these guys a sniff, they’ll jump all over you. Rafa is the best at that in the world.
“If Bernie plays and keeps that intensity, he’s going be to be very difficult to beat. Rafa knows that. Rafa is not happy with his draw.”
Tomic played Nadal in the third round of the Australian Open three years ago and was up in both the second and third sets before the Spaniard pegged him back. He is a player who relishes the big occasion, especially on home soil, and said: “Everything is possible. I’m playing good. I’m pretty confident.
“I’ve just got to play the tennis I played throughout Sydney. If I can do that, I’m going to give myself a chance. It’s going to be difficult, for sure. It’s going to have to be one of those days where I can play my best.”
There are a couple of Scots that feature in the draw for the men’s doubles. Jamie Murray, the brother of Wimbledon winner Andy, teams up with Australian John Peers in Melbourne. They take on Aussie pair Matt Reid and Luke Saville.
Colin Fleming is the other Scot in the draw. Playing alongside Englishman Ross Hutchins, the British pair take on Australia’s Marinko Matosevic and Poland’s Michal Przysiezny.