Pat Rafter ... ready to play doubles at the Aus Open
Pat Rafter - a career in pictures
Paul McNamee had a fair hunch three weeks ago Pat Rafter would contest next month's Australian Open when the former world No.1 ordered some tournament balls for his secret practice sessions.
In a major coup, Rafter was yesterday confirmed as a certain starter at Melbourne Park when his doubles partner revealed the dual US Open champion had accepted a wildcard into the year's first grand slam.
Rafter, who turns 31 on Sunday, hasn't played competitive tennis since Australia's Davis Cup final loss to France in December of 2001 and formally announced his retirement in January this year.
The serve-volleyer was trumpeted to make a cameo appearance in the doubles with fellow Queenslander Josh Eagle at the AAPT Championships in Adelaide from January 5-11. But Eagle yesterday said Rafter would "absolutely" also make a shock comeback to the Australian Open - three years after his epic five-set semi-final loss to eventual champion Andre Agassi.
"We just chatted. He had nothing else to do and he decided to have a game," Eagle said after a round of golf with Rafter on Queensland's Sunshine Coast yesterday.
"He had nothing on at the moment and he felt like it would be something fun to do.
"He knew that it would probably be my last Australian Open and last Australian summer circuit, so he thought we may as well go out in style."
Rafter will play fellow former world No.1 Mats Wilander in an exhibition match in Townsville on February 2 - the day after the Australian Open ends - but Eagle ruled out a permanent singles comeback for his good friend.
"Definitely not," he said. "This is purely something we're viewing as a bit of fun ... if we happen to win a match or two, so be it. That'd be a bonus."
Eagle said Rafter, last year's Australian of the Year, was ready for the intense media focus that would follow his decision to play again.
"He's fully aware of what to expect," he said.
"He knew his decision to play wouldn't be taken lightly by the press and media and by the public, and he understands. He's been involved in it long enough."
McNamee, the Australian Open tournament director, said Rafter's appearance at Melbourne Park would be a popular one.
"He'll be a really good addition to the tournament and for the fans in particular. The fans will get a kick out of it," McNamee said.
"It's been on the cards for a while, especially when Pat was ordering the tournament balls a few weeks ago. That's always a positive sign.
"It'll be interesting to see how he goes. He and Josh will have had a game in Adelaide and that will have them in good stead for Melbourne."
McNamee said he had been "in the business long enough to know" not to speculate on any possible long-term comeback for retired professional sportsmen.