Rafter stops Agassi in dramatic thriller

LONDON, JULY 6. The Gladiator has arrived. And so has the Epic. And, if tennis had the sort of Academy Awards that Hollywood hands out each year, the winners under two categories would have already been decided, long before the season's end.

So, welcome, then, Mr.Pat Rafter, whose nomination for Best Player for his leading role in this afternoon's Wimbledon classic may well go uncontested - as indeed the one for the Best Match.

It is unlikely that the Australian sporting icon has ever won as important a contest from less encouraging circumstances than those in which he found himself against the ageless Andre Agassi in the semifinals on Friday afternoon.

In a match of gladiatorial severity and nerve-jangling compulsion, Rafter, seeded three, looked rather drained in the fifth set as Agassi served for the match at 5-4. But the man who lost to Pete Sampras in five sets in the final last year engineered a miracle inside and outside as he tore the script to shreds and found a way out of the corner to eventually post a miraculous victory.

Rafter's 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 8-6 triumph over Agassi, in two hours and 59 minutes of riveting tennis, carried the Australian, who is perhaps playing in his last Wimbledon, to the final here for a second straight year.

``I got a little lucky in the end. I feel a little bit bad for him,'' said the amiable Rafter. ``But I have got to enjoy the moment too. He was the better player for much of the fifth set but I just hung in there and it worked.''

Hanging in...such a cliche that is. Rafter did not look like he was hanging in, really. It seemed more like he was being led to the gallows. And, for a time, as he struggled on serve in the decider, he had the look of a man on the death row who was aware his sentence was going to be carried out in a short time.

But, in such circumstances, there is a sense of peace and stillness that envelops the person and provides him the sort of clarity of thought that eludes us in normal circumstances. And, when death is a not much more than a metaphor, as it is in sport, the best of sportsmen can take advantage of this clear- thinking phase and produce miracles.

This is precisely what Rafter did today as he broke Agassi's serve in the 10th game of the decider with some bold returns and finally a decisive forehand crosscourt volley.

What is more, Rafter fended off a breakpoint on his own serve in the 13th game with a drop volley that would have taken the nerve of an assassin to play. And for the first time in the match Agassi looked a beaten man as he disputed a call and let go some choice expletives for which the umpire Mike Morrissey slapped a code violation warning on him.

Then, serving to stay in the match, the bald Las Vegan indicated that the pressure had finally got to him. Rafter pounced on his second serves and made a meal of them to set up three matchpoints. Agassi saved two but a Rafter backhand crosscourt pass sealed the match in his favour.

``There wasn't much I could do. He just came up with the goods at the right time,'' said Agassi. ``He put the pressure on all the time in the end. At the end of the day he played better at the most important moment.''

That Rafter did that may well lead him on to the most important moment of his life and career on Sunday. But, as the lovable Australian said, ``I still have another match to play. One at a time.''

Last year, Rafter had beaten Agassi in five sets in the semifinals here too in what has generally been referred to as the match of the 2000 tournament. But this one, for sheer intensity and sustained quality, was much more compelling and surpassed the drama witnessed a year ago.

And it was a triumph for Rafter's creativity and competitive vigour. His angles, pace changes and net rushes read like a textbook in deception. Agassi did the best he could to counter the devilish assortment of spin, slces and biting volleys as he himself cracked winners like a kid living out his deepest fantasises. But, in the end, the more innovative grass court player had to prevail...and, for once, he did on this day.

From beginning to end, it was exhilarating and extravagant tennis as both players produced shots from the top drawer of the sport.

After being blitzed in the first set, when Agassi broke his serve twice, Rafter came back strongly as he broke the American third seed's serve in the second game of the second set and the fought off a breakpoint on his own serve to hold to 3-0.

But this was not a match where the momentum would stay with one player for too long. So little was difference between the two of them out there and so evenely balanced was the contest that it was not at all surprising that Agassi took control of the third set with a break in the sixth game.

Aware all the time that Agassi would make a meal of his second serve, Rafter was under pressure to come up with a big first serve time and again. And this mean a few double faults along the way. And it was one such double fault that gave Agassi a chance to break Rafter in the sixth game.

Then again, an incredible aspect of the match was the number of long rallies that Rafter was winning from the back of the court against the backcourt master. Time and again Rafter won critical points blasting winners to end marathon rallies from just behind the baseline.

It was in the sixth game of the fourth set that Rafter finally found the break he was looking for and he plotted that from the backcourt, once again. But, for much of the fifth, there seemed only one possible winner out there on court. And it wasn't Rafter who dropped serve in the opening game with a drop volley that didn't quite climb over the net and then found himself teetering on the very brink in the third game.

Looking back, the four breakpoints that Rafter saved in that game were critical. For, if Agassi had gone two breaks up, the would have been no comebacks for the Aussie.

``Yeah, that was it. If I had lost my serve there then it would have been very difficult. Maybe impossible,'' admitted Rafter.

This morning, predictably, every inch of space allotted to Wimbledon coverage in the local newspapers was taken up by that great British hero who traditionally enjoys his fortnight of fame each summer during Wimbledon.

With Henmania having broken out to epidemic proportions, there was hardly a mention about a match-up that had all the makings of a grass court classic - Andre Agassi versus Pat Rafter. But the game's connoisseurs knew what was awaiting them, no matter that it was featured as what they call in boxing parlance an under- card in today's programme.

And they would not have been disappointed. For, this was a match so full of expression, replete with grace and beauty. Presenting a contrast of styles that goes back to the unrecapturable days of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, this contest produced esoteric watching pleasure until Rafter found out that he was running on empty early in the fifth set.

Where the handsome Australian re-filled and how he did it is anybody's guess. But Rafter did pick himself off the floor with tremendous guts to give a dramatic twist to the script late in the match.

Looking back, it is amazing too how fit and focussed Agassi himself was late in the fifth set. And to think Agassi appears to be fitter now, at 31, than he was 10 years ago! What an irony, this. But, then, a lot of things about Agassi life and career would seem ironical. That is precisely why he is a pure one-off.

The man was languishing outside the top 100, at 146, less than four years ago and has, since then, authored such a remarkable revival that there may not be a parallel to it in modern men's tennis.

Yes, he lost today. But Agassi lost like a champion. As Rafter himself had done in the semifinals of the Australian Open earlier this year when he led Agassi by two sets to one before being hit by cramps. And a hobbled Rafter lost like a man on that night.

But, then, when these two great players meet the ultimate winner is the game itself.

The results (prefix number denotes seeding):

Men's singles (semifinals): 3-Pat Rafter (Aus) bt 2-Andre Agassi (U.S.) 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 8-6.

Women's doubles (semifinals): 9-Kim Clijsters (Bel) & Ai Sugiyama (Jpn) bt 2-Virginia Ruano-Pascual (Esp) & Paola Suarez (Arg) 6-4, 6-4; 1-Lisa Raymond (U.S.) & Rennae Stubbs (Aus) bt 5-Kimberley Po (U.S.) & Nathalie Tauziat (Fra) 6-3, 7-5.

Men's doubles (semifinals): 4-Donald Johnson & Jared Palmer (U.S.) bt Max Mirnyi & Vladimir Voltchkov (Blr) 7-6 (7-3), 4-6, 7-5, 6-3; 3-Jiri Novak & David Rikl (Czech Rep) bt 15-Bob Bryan & Mike Bryan (U.S.) 6-4, 7-6 (7-1), 4-6, 6- 1.