If Rafter wins the title he will replace the Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov at the top of the rankings. However, for a set and a half yesterday Rafter's attacking play was almost as fruitless as Greg Rusedski's had been when the British No 2 lost to Lapentti in straight sets in the second round.
Lapentti was able to pick off the Australian's net-rushing with angled passing shots and was far less troubled by Rafter's play from the backcourt than Andre Agassi had been in the previous round. At times the ease with which Lapentti dealt with the heir apparent was almost embarrassing, and a section of the Roman crowd began to whistle derisively. Lapentti's early successes would have been received with greater appreciation had he not persisted in calling the umpire from his chair to check every ball marginally close to the lines.
Rafter's double-faulting helped Lapentti establish his superiority, and it seemed doubtful that the Australian would recover after missing his serve to lose the opening game after saving three break points. Lapentti served the set out to love after 40 minutes and broke immediately at the start of the second set.
Having seen so many leading players fall during the course of the week, the crowd became restless as Lapentti was three times on the point of breaking Rafter again to take a 3-0 lead after two more double-faults. At this juncture Rafter silenced the whistling by playing his way out of difficulty and then breaking Lapentti for the first time to level the set 2-2.
Lapentti hit a backhand long on a break point for 3-2, Rafter taking the lead instead. The set stayed on serve as a cooling wind relieved the intense heat, bringing players and spectators the discomfort of dust blowing from the court. Rafter, having adjusted his game (and changed his racket three times) to counter his opponent, refused to be distracted by the altered conditions.
The Australian broke in the concluding game of the set as Lapentti made the first mistake of a careful rally, netting a backhand on the second set point. Although Lapentti was able to save two break points in the second game of the final set, the Ecuadorian was emphatically the man under pressure. He netted a weak forehand to be broken for 3-1 in the course of winning only two points in the last five games.
Mantilla, who defeated David Prinosil, a German qualifier, 6-2, 6-4, has lost his three previous matches against Rafter, two of which were on clay, including the first round of the Italian Open in 1997. The Spaniard, who won the Samsung Open at Bournemouth last September, knows that he will not go into today's semi-final as the crowd's favourite. He rarely does.
While describing himself as the type who gets on with his game and is happy to leave others to court popularity, Mantilla has made the odd attempt to be noticed. Two years ago he shaved his head. Last year, he arrived in Rome with his hair dyed blond after losing a bet with the Argentinian Luis Lobo. This year, dark locks restored, he is sporting the makings of a goatee beard, and may dye that blond for the French Open, which starts a week next Monday.
"People only talk about `the handsome Moya' and so on," Mantilla said. "What more can I do? I don't want to try to be a Dennis Rodman. But if I had been Italian, I would be an idol."
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