Rafter digs deep to set up final fling

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Andre Agassi used an ugly word to describe beautiful tennis. He said it sucked. In fact it soared. It was as urgent as a gunfight, as dreamy as a ride in a balloon. The trouble was that for a second straight year it was Pat Rafter who was left standing one step away from winning the Wimbledon title, and so you could understand the angst of Agassi.

The man from Las Vegas had played every card in the pack but each time Rafter fashioned a winning hand.

There were times when he seemed to be once again exploring all the possibilities of modern tennis, threading shots through Rafter's formidable defence as delicately as some divine seamstress. There was also a killer's touch when he raced to 6-2, 6-3 triumphs in the first and third sets. What, you had to wonder, could stop him marching on to the kind of brilliant victory which, nine years ago, put such a shadow over the career of the next man up on Centre Court, Goran Ivanisevic?

Only a career performance of guts and spirit from the 28-year-old Australian who has already announced that this is almost certainly his last sweep along the peaks of a game to which he has always brought a cheerfully equable spirit and gifts finely honed enough to win two US Open titles. Now, with his right shoulder virtually written off by specialists, he is making his last run at the tournament which has beguiled him ever see he caught his first sight off it on his television set back home in Queensland – and which cruelly denied him in last year's final, when he surrendered a huge advantage over Pete Sampras.

That performance duly came; he won 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 8-6 in two hours, 59 minutes. This was after Agassi had broken him, with searing acumen and faultless execution in the first game of the fifth set and seemed to have survived the emotional turbulence which came when a linejudge missed an "out" call which was crucial to a Rafter break in the fourth set, one which carried him into a fifth set. Agassi served his way to a 4-2 lead in the fifth set and when Rafter fired a first serve into the net and cried, with heavy irony, "beauty, mate," the Australian cause seemed just about lost. Rafter, however, had still more more reserves to investigate and he did it with superb application. Nor did it help Agassi that the implications of that dubious call in the fourth set had plainly begun to nag to the point where he had to give it voice. Result: a code violation for obscene language, and later Agassi was less than gracious about the intervention of the lineswoman who reported his outburst to the umpire. "I blame it on her husband," said Agassi.

He was much more generous about the fighting impulses of Rafter, saying, "Really, there wasn't much more I could do. I thought I was playing really well. You know, I had so many opportunities, but he kept coming up with the goods at the right time.

"I had break points to go up double break a couple of times. Felt like I played some good points. He guessed right on a forehand when I had the easy put-away. I executed it well, felt good about it but he reflexed it back. I mean, that's just too good. And then there was the 5-4 game, serving for the match. I missed a couple of first serves but he really put the pressure on. He hit a couple of returns deep, on the line, and he stepped up his game. At the end of the day you have to be honest. He played better at the most important moments."

Rafter could not make a similar claim after last year's final, when he swept the first set against Sampras and took a firm hold on the second set before freezing. Now he looked like a man resolved to go every step of the way.

The essence of his performance came in the tenth of the game of the fifth set. Suddenly he was in every vital corner of the court. His nerve – and his game – held together quite beautifully.

Later he said, "I guess it's got to sink in – and I just don't want to get carried away with the whole situation because I still have one more match to play. I suppose what today's game was about was remembering that it's not over until the last point is played. It's probably one in a hundred or maybe 200 matches that something like that happens, that something turns around for you. You just have to hang in every match. That's what I did and I guess I got very lucky. Once I broke him back in the fifth set it was obviously a 50-50 ball game, and I knew that if I kept serving aces I had a chance. So I just settled down to doing that, settling down to winning my serve and earning the chance to break him and win.

"The good thing was that I have been in that situation quite a lot. I just re-gather myself, look at friends and try and focus on them and their hopes for me. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't but the important thing is remembering to fall back on the basics of the game. I'm not focusing too hard on the fact that this might be my last chance of winning Wimbledon. Whatever happens with my shoulder and my career, I can always come back again."

It was classic Rafter on and off the court. He absorbed both the creative brilliance of Agassi and the clamour building around his head as he returns to the final which some believed he owned before the resurrection of Sampras last summer. As he said, "All you can do is give it your best shot, mate. If you do that you're always in with a chance."

Yesterday he made the theory a glorious fact of his distinguished sporting life.