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17 - 23 June 2019

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Fever-Tree Championships: The remarkable story of Scott Draper, the 98 champion at The Queen's Club

  • ATP 500 World Tour logo
  • 23/06/2018

  • Major Events

By Kevin Mitchell

Scott Draper has had a remarkable life of ups and downs. In the summer of 1998, the talented young Australian crowned a rain-wrecked week against a quality field in west London to win his only ATP Tour title – but that was just a small part of his story. 

The season started for Draper in Adelaide, where he would lose to Lleyton Hewitt (whom he later coached, briefly), and ended in New York, where he gave Tim Henman three tough sets in the first round of the US Open. In between those two tournaments, Draper beat Laurence Tieleman in the final at The Queens Club, 7-6(5) 6-4 in one hour and 12 minutes. It is a memory he cherishes 20 years later.

“Absolutely a high point of my career,” says Draper, who lives in Brisbane, where he grew up, and works as a leadership consultant for KPMG. “No question about it. It was quite unexpected. I made two other ATP finals in my career, one in Washington and one in Adelaide. I made some last 16s, three in Grand Slam tournaments, two at the French and one at the US Open. They were certainly highlights too.”

Although Draper had not won two matches in a row coming to Queens that wet summer, over the week of the tournament the left-hander played the most consistent tennis of his life, defeating two-time major champion Patrick Rafter among six grass-court specialists, and another Australian, Mark Woodforde, in the semi-finals. Draper, who grew up in the sun, joked afterwards the weather was so bad he'd spent most of his time in the locker room, “having bets when the next bloody cloud would come over”. 

In the final, he did not give Tieleman a single look on his serve and put 10 aces past him in a near-flawless serving performance. Although ranked 253 in the world, Tieleman - Italian on his mother's side - had only won on grass on the ATP Tour. Draper, having almost withdrawn before the tournament with a knee injury that ultimately needed an operation, said he'd spend the £53,000 prize money on a good surgeon. 

And in victory he downplayed what he viewed as absurd comparisons with Rod Laver. “It's flattering, but it doesn't fit,” he said at the time. “You're talking about a guy who is the greatest legend in international tennis, and I'm a no-one.”

Draper was no Rod Laver. But he was much more than “a no-one”.

Six years before, his life was rich with promise. A teenage prodigy, Draper won the Wimbledon boys’ doubles title with fellow-Australian Steven Baldas - playing the quarters, semis and final on the same day.

Baldas quit the Tour within five years after a modest career; Draper could hardly have envisaged the many twists and turns awaiting him on and off the court.

Shortly after he had handled the pressure of winning at Wimbledon, he was consumed by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder [OCD]. He had a preoccupation with multiples of three - a debilitating obsession in a sport as number-orientated as tennis - and would respond by touching and counting.

“I didn't know what it was called at the time,” he says. “You have these intrusive thoughts that grab a hold on you, and you get fixated on things that are distressing. That's why you go to the routines, to distract yourself from what you're thinking. 

“It got to the point I was that low with it, that was the catalyst for me to say, 'That's it. OK, I've had enough.' I set a date and went cold turkey. I not only had to beat the physical routines of touching and whatnot, I had to learn how to manage my mind. I did all that on my own.”

Holding the OCD at bay through strength of will, Draper jumped 252 places in the rankings to 81 in the world in 1995, reached a quarter-final in Tokyo, where he lost to Andre Agassi, and got to the fourth round of the French Open. When he reached the same stage at Roland Garros a year later, losing to Pete Sampras, Draper was beginning to make a bit of noise on the circuit.

Yet his best achievement on the Tour, at Queen’s in 1998, was tinged with sadness. In February he had married Kellie Greig, whom he'd grown up with in Brisbane. While he had struggled with OCD, Kellie was fighting cystic fibrosis. Draper's Australian contemporary, Jason Stoltenberg, said once, “He tried so hard to do well, just to make her happy.”

At the end of the year, Draper needed arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and, although he had success in minor tournaments and reached a career-high ranking 42 the following May, he was beginning to struggle. 

Scott Draper returned in 2005 for one final chapter and won the Australian Open mixed doubles title with Sam Stosur

Meanwhile, Kellie's illness worsened and, on 19 July 1999, she died after 10 days on life support. For 18 months, Draper battled depression. He drank heavily, put on two stones – and played some golf. On the quiet expanse of the fairways, he sought to make sense of his life again. Gradually, golf would replace tennis as his core sporting interest. 

Hampered by his knee problem, Draper was finding it tough to make an impression in an era in which the game's greatest player had begun to make his mark. But, in August 2003, he was hurled back into the spotlight. A month after Roger Federer had won Wimbledon for the first time, the bearded and pony-tailed Swiss, just turned 22, had to save seven match points against Draper in Cincinnati, the warm-up tournament for the US Open. The Australian forced Federer to grind out a 12-10 tie-break in the third set for a nervous win. He lost in the next round. After coming into the main draw through qualifying, it might have been the best losing two hours of Draper's tennis career.

When his left knee gave up on him again in 2004, he rested from the Tour. He returned in 2005 for one final chapter and won the Australian Open mixed doubles title with Sam Stosur. Within six months, his knee was beyond repair. His second-last Tour appearance was at Queen's, where he went out in the first round in three sets to Victor Hanescu. At Wimbledon, where it had all started in 1992, he said goodbye to tennis, losing to Nikolay Davydenko in the first round. In 2007, he coached Hewitt at the Australian Open. 

For many athletes, that would have been plenty. Draper had earned $1.5m in prize money over 13 years, travelled the world and made many friends. But, at 32, he turned full-time to golf – the sport that had lifted him out of his torpor years earlier – and discovered he was good enough to compete on the PGA Tour. 

“I didn't think anything other than golf was an outlet – until my first wife, Kellie, passed away,” he says. “I found it to be a great release. I went from a tennis player who played golf from anywhere between 10 to 20 times a year to someone who was probably playing every other day for six months. In that period, I got my first lesson. I saw my handicap going from a good four-marker – I could shoot under par, but I could also shoot 80 – to a plus handicapper.”

Draper won a tournament in NSW, played and commentated on TV in America and, living back in Brisbane, still enjoys the game. He is married to Jessica and they have three children. He went back to university in 2014 and got an MBA.  

In 2007, there was serious talk of turning his life into a movie. It didn't happen. Hollywood can be like that. Never the less, looking uncannily like Mark Wahlberg, Draper was often stopped in the street and asked for his autograph. If only they had known his real story.

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