Rafter can triumph in trip to last-chance saloon

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The Independent Online

Given that Tim Henman has been taken out of the equation, there could hardly be a more appealing "People's Monday" than today's men's singles final between Pat Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic, two of the most popular characters, on and off the court, the sport has known.

Ivanisevic, the ace of one-liners, whether serving or talking, has earned the chance to rid himself of the tag of the best player never to win a Grand Slam singles title. And he has arrived in his fourth Wimbledon final in the most extraordinary fashion as the first man with a wild card to win six consecutive matches.

The Goran Ivanisevic ranked No 129 in the ATP's tournament entry system – the crazy Croat who broke all his rackets and could not finish his match at Brighton last November – has transformed himself into one of the two best players in the world on current form.

Rafter is the other, having justified his seeding at No 3 by displaying his athleticism and attacking style in reaching the final for the second consecutive year. A year ago, it will be remembered, Rafter came close to taking a two sets to love lead against Pete Sampras. The American was able to raise his game and win the title for the seventh time in eight years, and a record 13th Grand Slam singles championship.

On that gloomy evening, Rafter blamed himself for failing to take his opportunity in the second-set tie-break, in which he had led, 4-1. "I couldn't control my nerves," he said. "I did not expect to do as well as I'd done that quickly after my shoulder operation. And when I had myself in the position to win there, I guess I didn't believe in myself."

What would he do if he found himself in a similar situation today? "Well, I was saying 'relax' last time – 'relax, relax'. It didn't work. I might say 'choke, choke', and see what happens." Rafter continues to smile and joke, even though his history of injuries prompted him to reduce his playing schedule this year. He intends to take an "indefinite break" at the end of the year.

Ivanisevic has also been troubled by physical problems, which is hardly surprising given that he has been lashing down mighty serves for more than 12 years on the tour. Whatever the outcome of today's contest, both men should bequeath their serving arms to medical science.

Ivanisevic won their only previous match at Wimbledon, in the fourth round in 1996, but Rafter was the victor in their two other meetings, at the 1998 United States Open, en route to making a successful title defence, and on clay at the 1999 Italian Open. Those contests may count for little today, such is the desire of both men to make the most of what may prove to be their last shot at a major title. "I have to return like I did against Henman today," Ivanisevic said. "If I return like I did a couple of days ago, then I'm going to be in big trouble, because Pat's a great volleyer."

Rafter has had two days to rest and prepare for the final since defeating Andre Agassi in five sets in the semi-finals last Friday. "There's no secret about Goran," he says. "You've got to get his serve back."

Henman, who knows all about that, was asked to pick his winner. "It's a 50-50 match, isn't it," he said. "It's an incredible story. You would have thought it's their last chance.

"From what Rafter says, this may be his last Wimbledon. It's Goran's fourth final. I think he's certainly feeling pressure from that aspect. It's going to be a question of how well he deals with it. Good luck to both of them. If I had to pick a winner, I'd pick Rafter."

Your correspondent takes a similar view, chiefly because it will be astonishing if Ivanisevic is able to maintain the momentum of his serving after such a gruelling weekend, both physically and emotionally.

"If I had to play the final straight after the Henman match, I'd be lucky to win three games against Rafter," he said. "I just have to hope that my shoulder is going to be fine for one more match."

Given your correspondent's tipping of Henman, the nation's favourite tennis son, to win the tournament, however, Rafter and Ivanisevic can rest easy.