July 26, 1999 : The day Patrick Rafter became world number 1

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Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to relive a tennis event which happened. On this day, July 26, 1999, Patrick Rafter became the first Australian to reach world no.1 since John Newcombe, in 1974.

What happened exactly on that day

On this day, the 26th of July 1999, Patrick Rafter became the first Australian to reach world no.1 since John Newcombe, in 1974. The Australian, who had just reached the semi-final at Wimbledon ten months after his second US Open crown, would only secure that spot for one week, setting a record of the shortest reign in tennis history. 

The guys involved

Patrick Rafter was born in 1972 and he had turned pro in 1991. The Australian had not achieved any remarkable results in his early career, claiming only one title before 1997, at the 1994 Manchester Open. He had reached his best ranking in 1994 as no.21 and had spent most of his time outside the top 40. In 1997, his career suddenly took off when he reached the semi-final in Roland-Garros, defeated only by Sergi Bruguera (6-7 6-1 7-5 7-6). A few months later, after reaching two finals, in Indianapolis and Long Island, he claimed the US Open title to general astonishment. It was only his second title ever! On his way, he had defeated Andre Agassi (then no.63, 6-3 7-6 4-6 6-3), world no.2 Michael Chang (6-3 6-3 6-4) and Greg Rusedski in the final (6-3 6-2 4-6 7-5).

In 1998, his disappointing results in the first half of the season made John McEnroe criticize him as a one-shot Grand Slam winner and Pete Sampras expressed that he would need a second Major title to be called a great player. As a response, in summer 1998, Pat Rafter would claim the titles in Toronto and Cincinnati (edging there…Sampras in the final, 1-6 7-6 6-4). Surfing the wave, Rafter would conquer a second US Open crown, defeating Pistol Pete a second time (6-7 6-4 2-6 6-4 6-3) before he beat fellow Australian Mark Philippoussis (6-3 3-6 6-2 6-0) in the first 100% Aussie Grand Slam final since 1970. He was described by Bud Collins as “a humble man known for a gracious manner on the court, great generosity and a gentlemanly demeanor at all times”.

The facts

Patrick Rafter had started 1999 as world no.4, following a tremendous second half of 1998 : after claiming two Masters 1000 titles in a row, he had triumphed for the second time at the US Open. At the time, Patrick Rafter was not seen as a contender for world no.1, but 1999 started in the most peculiar way. Yevgeny Kafelnikov triumphed at the Australian Open, in the absence of no.1 Pete Sampras and no.2 Marcelo Rios. Sampras, who had been dominating the tour since 1993, was exhausted after a 1998 marathon to finish the year for the sixth time in row as world no.1, and he played only four tournaments until May. There was no other real leader on the tour at that time, so three players contended for the top seat : Patrick Rafter (US Open champion in 1997 and 1998), Carlos Moya (Roland-Garros champion in 1998), and Yevgeny Kafelnikov after he claimed the title in Melbourne Park.

In March, Moya had been the first to get to the top,  for only two weeks. Interestingly, none of the contenders were in a good shape at the time and the situation evolved without much connection to their latest results, making it quite confusing for anyone not knowing very well how the ATP ranking was calculated. In May, it was Kafelnikov’s turn to sit on top of the world, although it only lasted six weeks. 

Meanwhile, in spring, Patrick Rafter was getting back in shape and twice, found himself one victory away from reaching the top. In May, in the final of Rome,  Gustavo Kuerten did not let him a chance (6-4 7-5 7-6). When the grass-court season started, the Aussie claimed his first title of the season in s’Hertogenbosch, defeating Andrei Pavel in the final (3-6 7-6 6-4), and at Wimbledon, he edged Todd Martin in the quarterfinals to set up a semi-final showdown against Andre Agassi. The American had just triumphed at Roland-Garros, and he was also competing for world no.1; in fact, that very spot was at stake in this Wimbledon semi-final, eventually won by Agassi in three sets (7-5 7-6 6-2). 

Yet, three weeks later, without competing, Patrick Rafter supplanted Agassi. How was that possible? It happened because the American was the defending champion in Washington, where he had triumphed in July 1998, but in 1999, the tournament had been moved to August. Thus, on the 26th of July 1999, Agassi lost the points he had earned in Washington, as well as the world no.1 spot. 

Patrick Rafter did not attend any tournament on that particular week, unlike his rivals. In Los Angeles, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi fought in the final for world no.1, a battle won by Sampras, 7-6 7-6. Rafter never reclaimed the top spot and never had a chance to participate in a tournament as world no.1.

The Australian commented on this very short reign without regrets : 

“This year was never going to be a ranking sort of thing for me,” he said in Cincinnati. “It was never a goal, it just sort of happened that I was so close so many times, and then it just happened. I always joke with the players a little bit. They say, ‘Congratulations, mate, you made No.1.’ I say, ‘Yeah, one week.’ They say, ‘At least you bloody got it. At least you can say you got there.’”

What next

Pete Sampras, Carlos Moya, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Andre Agassi, Patrick Rafter : in 1999, five players occupied the world no.1 spot, setting an all-time record. In September, after Andre Agassi triumphed at the US Open, he would secure the spot until the end of the year and become the ATP World Champion. 

Patrick Rafter would reach two consecutive finals in Wimbledon, defeated in 2000 by Pete Sampras (6-7 7-6 6-4 6-2), and in 2001 by Goran Ivanisevic, in a five-set legendary final (6-3 3-6 6-3 2-6 9-7). Although the entire Australian nation waited for him to claim the title in Melbourne Park, his best attempt there would be a semi-final in 2001, lost to Agassi (7-5 2-6 6-7 6-3 6-3). At the end of 2001, his shoulder would need surgery. He would never come back on the tour afterwards and Patrick Rafter would announce his retirement in 2003.

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