- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2001

WIMBLEDON, England The Aussie rules.
In the ultimate study in contrast both on and off the court, Pat Rafter rallied from the brink of defeat to edge Andre Agassi 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 8-6 in an epic men's semifinal at Wimbledon yesterday.
Rafter will make his bid for a first Wimbledon title tomorrow against either Brit Tim Henman or big-serving Croat Goran Ivanisevic, who had their match suspended by rain and darkness with Henman up a set and on serve in the fourth.
But before the rains descended on the All England Club, Rafter and Agassi provided the most compelling theater of the fortnight, swapping brilliant shots for nearly three hours on Centre Court before the 28-year-old Aussie finally earned a repeat trip to the finals. In last year's semifinal he also defeated Agassi in a five-set thriller.
"Not many matches, maybe one in 100, one in 200 matches that you play something like that happens, it turns around for you," said Rafter, who broke the 31-year-old American at 4-5 in the fifth set to escape elimination and extend the match. "He was definitely the better player throughout the fifth set, but I got one chance, stayed aggressive and got lucky."
Rafter was far more than just lucky. For every rifled Agassi passing shot from the baseline, Rafter had an answer with his serve-and-volley routine. He ripped 30 aces past the game's best returner, won a slew of points with perfectly angled touch volleys and changed pace with slices and topspin just enough during baseline rallies to keep the booming Agassi at bay.
After being broken in the first game of the final set, Rafter staved off five more break points, patiently awaiting his chance to draw even. That opportunity came with Agassi serving for the match at 5-4. Two Agassi errors and a beautiful backhand return winner from Rafter at 30-all led to the pivotal break chance, which Rafter cashed in with a charging forehand volley.
Both players then held serve easily before Agassi blew his last opportunity for victory with Rafter serving at 6-all. Thanks to a series of low returns at Rafter's charging feet, Agassi earned a break point chance. But with the eyes of the grass court gods bearing down on him, Rafter turned a lasered Agassi passing attempt into an incredible backhand drop volley to quash the opportunity. At deuce Agassi pulled a backhand wide and then blurted out an obscenity in frustration. The curse was heard by lineswoman Wendy Smith. She reported the outburst to the umpire, who then issued Agassi a code violation warning.
Though the warning carried no penalty, it seemed to annoy Agassi to distraction. He immediately dropped the next point and the game on an uncharacteristic error, and then committed three more consecutive miscues to fall behind 0-40 on his own serve.
"He played a pretty loose game at 7-6," said Rafter, who finally closed the match with a looping topspin backhand pass. "After about the second or third point, I thought, 'He's a little bit upset here.' He was a bit hacked off. I could tell then that the [lineswoman] had played a bit of an influence on the match… . I think it was that lady that really got to him in the end. Nothing was going his way, and I think he pretty well snapped."
Indeed he did. As Agassi was walking to the net to shake Rafter's hand, he swiped his extra service ball at Smith without looking. And after the match, a fuming Agassi continued to take cheap shots at Smith.
"I thought that was a little classless for Centre Court," said Agassi of the language warning, incredibly questioning someone else's poor taste before attacking her personally with an off-color jibe. "I blame her husband for that."
Undoubtedly, Agassi was doubly upset because he knows his time at the top is fading fast, and to blow a trip to the Wimbledon finals with a chance to serve out the match was particularly galling. But his behavior both during and after the match was pure "Ugly American."
Midway through the fourth set, he cursed about a pair of line calls he felt were incorrect. Though slow-motion replay later proved that both calls were clearly correct, Agassi sarcastically asked the umpire to remove the official.
"You've got plenty of people, so get rid of him," Agassi said. "Do you want me to find one for you?"
Later, when that lineman moved in his rotation to cover the center line, Agassi blasted a 122 mph serve that landed on the baseline a miss on the order of Allen Iverson chucking a free throw over the backboard and ricocheted within inches of the lineman's head. Before reloading for his second serve, Agassi smirked and waved at the faultless linesman.
Not only did Agassi unload on Smith in his post-match interview, but he was so bitter he couldn't even address the caliber of the tennis which was fantastic by any measure.
"I thought it sucked," said Agassi. "I have no ability to assess the quality of the match, especially when I come out on the losing end. It's going to take me weeks to assess the quality of that match."
Nearly lost in all of Agassi's shameless antics was Rafter's valiant comeback. Rafter, who plans to retire from fulltime tennis after this season, has always valued Wimbledon above all other majors. And after last year's fade in the final, when he had Pete Sampras down a set and 4-1 in the second-set tiebreaker, Rafter's semifinal surge yesterday was a remarkable confidence-builder.
"I'm pretty excited, but I'm trying to remember I've got one more match to play," said Rafter. "I've got to keep my head on that one, but that was pretty strong stuff out there today."

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