James Duckworth is pursuing his first ATP Tour title this week in Kazakhstan.

How Rafter Helped Duckworth

Gain insight into the Nur-Sultan quarter-finalist

The masterful serving performance that carried Australian James Duckworth into the Astana Open quarter-finals on Thursday may not have occurred without help from legend Pat Rafter.

Duckworth continued his fine run of form since the US Open by defeating fourth seed Filip Krajinovic 7-6 (2) 6-3 in one hour and 30 minutes in Nur-Sultan. It was the Australian’s seventh win in succession at all levels, with Duckworth bringing the form that saw him claim his 12th ATP Challenger Tour title last week in Istanbul to Kazakhstan.

World No. 65 Duckworth is demonstrating what he is capable of when free of injury.

“I went to Istanbul to get some matches, to try to get a few wins, and progressively got a bit better there,” Duckworth said. “I had a tough travel day and got through yesterday and felt like I played a lot better today. I am really happy with how the past couple of weeks have gone.”

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There are those in Australian tennis who wondered whether Duckworth, who is popular among his peers, was cursed given his injury misfortune. The 29-year-old has undergone three different surgeries on his right elbow, another three operations on his right foot and also a couple on his right shoulder during an interrupted career.

The arrival of Covid-19 last year, which suspended professional tennis for more than five months, allowed Duckworth time to consider how best to treat the shoulder problem that had caused him pain for the previous year.

It is here that former World No. 1 Rafter, a two-time US Open champion, provided reassurance to Duckworth that has enabled him to flourish in 2021.

Duckworth approached Rafter, who lives about three hours south of Brisbane in the surfing hamlet of Byron Bay, for advice on what to do given he also battled serious shoulder injuries during his career.

Rafter recommended Greg Hoy, a surgeon in Melbourne who has worked with other Australian players, and the resulting operation proved a great success.

“I was really battling,” Duckworth said. “I had the option to try a debridement (removal of dead tissue) on my shoulder, but we weren’t quite sure if it was going to work.

Watch Tennis United Featuring Duckworth

“Pat Rafter had the same surgery. He had some great success from it. I spoke to him about it and he advised me to do it and I thought that as I had been playing in pain for a while, and I had that time, it was not going to get any worse, so we would try it.

“It was not quite right when I came back, but from about November last year, it improved massively. I am pain-free. I am not taking anti-inflammatories. I am not having cortisone injections every couple of months, so that has been nice.”

Duckworth had a difficult end to a recent stint in the United States when he lost tight matches in Winston-Salem to Thiago Monteiro and then at the US Open to Pedro Martinez.

“I was none from nine in match points in two weeks, which was pretty brutal,” Duckworth said.

But the resilience he showed to overcome serious injuries has also proven beneficial to overcoming setbacks on the court. Coached by former Australian Davis Cup player Wayne Arthurs, he is working on being more aggressive against players the calibre of Krajinovic, and the signs are good.

The supreme serving performance by Duckworth, who dropped just five points on serve in the opening set Thursday in Nur-Sultan, placed the Serbian under immense pressure. Next up for the Australian is countryman John Millman, the defending Astana Open champion. Duckworth views the Queenslander as a role model given he too has overcome career-threatening injuries to carve out an accomplished career.

“He is playing well and he is obviously very comfortable on this court, in these conditions, being the defending champ. He is a really tenacious competitor,” Duckworth said. “He has been through his share of injuries also, so we have sort of helped each other along at different times through different rehab phases.

“It has been great to see him get to around 30 or so in the world over the past couple of years, since he has been 30, and hopefully I can build my way up the rankings like he has done.”

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