It was July 26, 1999.
After years of sweat, toil and heartbreak, travelling to far flung corners of the globe on a shoestring budget, brother in tow, a young kid from Mount Isa would finally hit the big time.
For one brief moment, Pat Rafter would be crowned world number one. King of the Hill. Top of the Heap.
During his career, he would capture back-to-back US Open titles in 1997 and 1998, the only Aussie to do so in the Open era. Rafter admired as much for his classic serve-and-volley style, as for his general sense of fairplay and sportsmanship.
As a TV sports reporter over the past 15 years, it was always evident just how much the Australian public loved Pat. Whether it was at a Davis Cup match around the country or at the Australian Open, he was a player the nation embraced. It’s a sentiment still felt to this day.
But the biggest insight into his success was perhaps revealed when I was lucky enough to take a trip back to where it all started.
Stepping off the plane in Mount Isa, the oppressive fumes of the local copper smelting mine punching a searing blow through the lungs, the scene couldn’t be any more isolated.
This is where Pat’s story began: one of humility, perseverance and above all, respect.
There in the corner of town was a dilapidated court, a melancholy creak floating over the long-abandoned venue. The torn and tattered net was quietly flapping in the evening summer breeze.
It could have been any rundown tennis court in a sleepy country town. But this one was different.
This was where young Pat had played with his brothers underneath the shadow of the Mt Isa smelting funnel.
With me was his first coach. He told me how as a young boy, Pat would always shake an opponent’s hand before and after the match. How while the other boys would often lose focus, engaging in minor mischief, Pat remained razor sharp. How he would continue to hit balls long after other kids had gone.
He told me of Pat’s attitude and how he was raised. How Pat would choose to internalise his thoughts rather than taking them out on the court, or worse still, an opponent. How the coach would award his young players a soft drink bottle if they could hit the top of the tennis net, and how while other kids would aim for each other, “Pat was a good boy and always behaved”.
His good manners were evident from a very early age, a credit to his mother and father. According to Pat himself, it was also due to his scholastic upbringing. “The nuns were tough on me”, he said with a smile.
“He would choose to internalise his thoughts rather than taking them out on the court, or worse still, an opponent.”
Speaking with his mother, Jocelyn, in their sprawling Queensland residence in Brisbane, she talked about building good character and about teaching Pat the importance of being gracious in both victory and defeat.
“To always congratulate and show respect to the winner. To always be humble”.
Nick Kyrgios’ ability is beyond reproach. His victories over greats Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are testimony to that. But just like Mark Philippoussis before him, who many feel failed to deliver on his huge potential, Kyrgios would do well to have a trusted confidant in his corner to guide him forward.
There’s a line which to this day is proudly displayed on the wall at Wimbledon.
There, as players enter that gladiatorial arena at the All England club, are Rudyard Kipling’s musings and they still hold true to this day.
Our troubled stars, including Kygios, would do well to reflect on them from time to time.
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same.”