The defending champion won, 6-1, 6-7, 6-0, 6-3 in two hours and 25 minutes, the second set delaying him after he failed to convert break points in the first, third and seventh games. Rafter won the shoot-out, 7-5, which was at least some consolation for the 20-year-old who was born in the outback town of Mt Isa, a sort of Las Vegas without the night life.
Now boasting an address on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, Rafter would prefer a world ranking to go with it. His determination in the pre-qualifying tournament and wins against his compatriot Simon Youl and Todd Nelson guaranteed that he would leave the All England Club higher than his current No 178.
Facing Agassi on the world's most famous court proved another matter. After losing the tie-break, the American allowed his opponent only 11 points in the next nine games as he continued to hone his returns and to beef up his improvised service action.
An American colleague described the action as a tomahawk chop and, as any self-respecting Apache would confirm, this is not a skill acquired overnight. Agassi's coach, Nick Bollettieri, confirmed that six weeks were spent working on the technique, and the impact of the shortened backswing has been remarkable.
When Agassi triumphed at Wimbledon last year, his biggest ace count in a match was nine in the five-set final against Goran Ivanisevic. He went one better in his opening match against Bernd Karbacher on Monday, and put nine past Rafter yesterday. One Agassi serve this week was clocked at 118mph, which is pretty respectable for a man compensating for wrist and elbow problems.
Having survived thus far against most expectations, Agassi may be required to raise his game in the days ahead, starting with his fourth-round match against Richard Krajicek on Monday: eighth seed versus ninth.
The big-serving Dutchman lost to Agassi in straight sets in the third round in 1991, since when much has happened to both players. While the American was on the way to glory last year, Krajicek was fending off outraged female tennis players after calling their fitness into question.
On past visits to the lawns, Krajicek's weakness was Agassi's strength: the return of serve. The Dutchman will have an opportunity to work on this more than usual, not previously having progressed beyond the last 32.
Agassi, in contrast, will be going in against the heavy artillery for the first time. 'Krajicek is a typical guy you're going to face when you get to this stage of the tournament,' Agassi said, 'and you've got to be ready for it. I think I'm ready. I've had a few great matches, and I really can't complain right now. I feel like I'm really in the groove of my game and it's like the lay-off doesn't have any impact on me any more.'
He went further: 'Now I think there's a realistic shot of winning the tournament. The first few matches were the ones that I anticipated being the toughest, at least as far as me feeling good about my tennis.'
Krajicek sounded less than confident after defeating Laurence Tieleman, a Belgian qualifier, 6-2, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2. 'I wasn't happy with my serve return,' he said. 'At one stage I couldn't get a return in the court. I'm going to work on that in the next couple of days.'
On the other hand, he is still banging in the serves (20 aces yesterday). 'I'm winning my service games quite easily,' he said. 'I dropped it twice. I find that can happen in 10 sets, or whatever. Compared to the way I was playing two years ago, for sure I have improved. But compared to him (Agassi), I don't know. He's playing pretty good on grass, even though he's not got a serve-and-volley game. He's very tough. He makes all the returns.'
While that is undeniable, Agassi has now moved into dangerous territory, and finds himself surrounded by big-servers. Pete Sampras advanced fluently with a 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 win against Byron Black, the top seed experiencing the minor problem of a nose- bleed. And Boris Becker and Michael Stich moved a step closer to a Teutonic contest of former champions in the quarter-finals. Becker defeated the Swiss Jakob Hlasek, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, and Stich overpowered the South African Christo van Rensburg.
Where power is concerned, there has been none in the women's tournament to match Steffi Graf's. The defending champion loosened her mighty forehand again and swept into the fourth round with a 6-0, 6-0 win against the Canadian, Helen Kelesi, who did well to collect 11 points.
The afternoon's work took Graf only 34 minutes from first shot to last. It was her second 'double bagel', as the Americans say, and she has dropped only three games so far - all against Britain's Clare Wood in the second round.
Brenda Shultz may have delivered a heftier serve than Graf this year (112mph at the German Open), but the Dutchwoman did not quite have the all-round game to vanquish the seventh seed, Jennifer Capriati. The 17-year-old American won, 7-5, 4-6, 6-2.
There was one surprise. Yayuk Basuki, the pride of Indonesian tennis, had an excellent win against the 10th seed, Magdalena Maleeva, 6-3,
6-2. With that, the three sisters began to prepare for their next campaign.
The British challenge, page 51
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