The third-seeded Rafter, a 6-7 6-4 2-6 6-4 6-3 winner, will defend the title he won 12 months back against the unseeded 21-year-old, Mark Philippoussis, who put out the 10th seed and French Open champion, Carlos Moya of Spain, 6-1 6-4, 5-7 6-4.
Sampras, 27, was chasing his fifth US Open and what would have been his 12th Grand Slam victory, putting him level with the all-time collector of titles, Roy Emerson, another Australian. He had been given a torrid time of it by Rafter in a gripping contest of marvellous tennis, the highlight of which was the first-set tiebreak. Rafter had missed two set points before Sampras won it 10-8 on his second set point.
Rafter, charging the net relentlessly, took the second set but dropped the third on one service break. It was early in the fourth set that Sampras, going for a volley, suddenly pulled up, flexing his left leg. At the next changeover he went off for treatment and on his return was limping noticeably as he chased anything wide. He was so handicapped that he won only three points on the Rafter serve in that fourth set. He opted to continue rather than default but was at Rafter's mercy after dropping serve in the opening game of the final set.
Today's will be the first all-Australian final at the US championships since Ken Rosewall defeated Tony Roche in 1970. Philippoussis lived up to his nickname Scud with a rocket-like performance. He should have won in straight sets but a bad spell in the third set allowed Moya to put a better shine on the result than he deserved.
It is the first Grand Slam final for Philippoussis and completes a remarkable turn- around in his fortunes. The big-serving lad who beat Pete Sampras as an 18-year-old at the Australian Open had fallen out with his Davis Cup captain, John Newcombe, and reached such a low point just before Wimbledon that he considered taking a break from the game. Then he was encouraged by his compatriot, Pat Cash, whose inspiring presence, allied to the fitness regime of his trainer, Gavin Hopper, revitalised him and his attitude.
Philippoussis paid full tribute to Cash after the two-hour match, calling him "a great inspiration" and the man who had given him new hope - and clearly a fresh start in a career which had run into the sand.
At the pre-noon starting time the crowd was spread thinly around the vast bowl, like a cricket County Championship audience, on a hot, still day. Television takes the blame squarely for that, having decreed that on what it constantly refers to as "Super Saturday" two men's semi-finals and the women's final should be squeezed into one day's play; commercial vandalism.
So it came to pass that Moya and Philippoussis emerged to play a crucial Grand Slam semi-final in front of a few hundred. Not that it fazed the 6ft 4in Philippoussis, who went off as if propelled by rocket. Playing what John McEnroe described as "incredible tennis" he surged through the first set in 21 minutes, dropping a mere five points on serve.
Philippoussis's serving was phenomenal. Even the second serves were comfortably exceeding 100mph and Moya could do little but hang on and hope that the tempest would blow itself out. Moya's speed about the court succeeded in applying the brake in the second set but not enough to prevent him going two sets down with the match only 51 minutes old with a single break of serve in the seventh game. At that stage Philippoussis had permitted Moya a miserly 13 points, and six of those were from his own double-faults.
Moya needed to take urgent measures to halt the rout, and these included abandoning his baseline tactics and mounting a serve-and-volley campaign. The fact that he got out of trouble temporarily by winning the third set was due not so much to these tactics but to the inability of the Australian to finish his man off. At 5-5 in the third set Moya faced four break points but managed to salvage the lot, which so dismayed Philippoussis that he promptly double-faulted twice to hand the Spaniard the set.
Cash had instructed Philippoussis to put maximum pressure on Moya. This tactic was worked to perfection in the fourth set, though he was guilty of letting Moya off the hook at 2-2, missing three break points. It mattered little since Moya collapsed completely in his next service game, when he was foot-faulted three times, double-faulted and dropped serve. From there on, all Philippoussis needed to do was stay calm and hold on for one of the most satisfying wins of his career.