The tennis world is abuzz with talk of a Pat Rafter return, writes Richard Hinds.
The big news is that Wally Masur has been hitting some balls with Pat Rafter. But don't start booking your flights for Wimbledon just yet. Those balls have been of the small and white variety rather than the fluffy yellow ones, and Masur claims to know as little as anyone about the biggest question in Australian sport: Will Our Pat give it one more try?
"I've seen Pat in Sydney and we've played a bit of golf," Masur says. "I'm tempted from a selfish point of view [as Davis Cup coach] to say, 'What do you think? What are you going to do?' But everyone he sees on the street has been asking those questions. The closer you are to him the more you tend to leave him alone."
Speculation about a possible comeback has dogged Rafter since the day he announced his imminent "break from the game" in January last year. Because of the equivocal nature of his statements, everyone wanted to know if this was merely a chance to rest his aching body or a full farewell.
Now, a year after he hit his last ball in anger, it has become a hot topic again after Rafter said recently he was close to making a final decision about a comeback. While Rafter seemed still to be wrestling with the major issues - whether his fragile arm could withstand the work needed and how he could combine fatherhood with the rigours of the professional circuit - the fact he was again speaking of playing seemed telling.
After he lost the 2001 Wimbledon final to Goran Ivanisevic, Australian Paul Kilderry said he doubted his mate would be back because "once he puts his racquet down and finds out what everyone else has been doing, he won't want to pick it up again".
Now Rafter is playing again, although his brother and business manager Steve warns against getting too excited. "You can read that [Pat hitting balls] a couple of ways," he says. "Maybe he's having a bit of a hit and a giggle because you don't get that much exercise hitting golf balls. Or maybe there is more to it."
The Rafter family are uncertain which way Pat will jump. "We get more insight into what he is doing reading the papers than from speaking to Pat," says Steve. "Obviously we want to know, but we also know not to ask him because whatever he does will be up to him."
But given he has had his aching arm tested by surgeons and picked up a racquet, Rafter at least seems to be putting a toe back in the water. "I don't think he's hitting a hell of a lot," says Masur. "But, put it this way, he's still got some racquets in his cupboard."
Masur believes the only person likely to have an impact on Rafter's decision will be coach Tony Roche. And, so far, he is not letting on.
Roche's friend John Newcombe echoes the populist sentiment that Rafter should return to settle "unfinished business". But as much as he would like to win Wimbledon or the Davis Cup, the real test will be whether Rafter is willing to commit to the hard work and, perhaps, endure the constant pain that drove him into retirement.
"I think if he does come back it will take a lot of work," says Brad Gilbert, who helped oversee Andre Agassi's return from oblivion in 1997. "The main thing is it takes a bit of time. If his body has healed, the guy is still a young guy. But you have to fully commit, and that might mean taking your lumps along the way."
Agassi's ranking had slumped to triple digits and he was forced to play Challenger events to revive his career. However, Gilbert says his return was very different to a potential Rafter comeback.
"He did play, he just didn't play the slams that year  and he wasn't motivated," he says. "It wasn't like he was injured, he was just dealing with other things in his life at that time, and when he got motivated again he was ready to go."
The similarity, as Gilbert sees it, is that Rafter would have to be prepared for some low times. "There are guys you used to beat and now, at the start, they can squeeze by you," says Gilbert, who made a successful return after an eight-month lay-off due to ankle surgery in 1988. "You have to be prepared to take that and keep going."
The key to a successful Rafter comeback is how well his body has healed. Because the arm injury that forced Rafter to miss his scheduled farewell match in the reverse singles of the 2001 Davis Cup final has only recently been diagnosed, the treatment is vague. He would therefore be gambling that time has helped heal the wound.
"He seems good now," says Masur. "But the obvious risk is the arm, or something else, will break down."
The good news for Rafter if he does decide to play is that not a great deal has changed in the time he has been away. "When Pat stopped Lleyton was on top and Andre was close," says Gilbert. "Now Lleyton is on top and Andre is close. The picture is the same."
While Agassi's back-court game demanded constant tournament play, Masur believes Rafter could be successful playing fewer tournaments to cater to his new family life, provided he does the work off the court.
"The serve-volley game he plays is much tougher, far more athletic," Masur says. "What you actually see on court is only the tip of the pyramid. He has to get into incredible shape to play. But I still think Pat, with a limited schedule, can be very dangerous ... He's still got a lot to offer to the game."
come on back, Pat!