Rafter the man to shoulder burden of history

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The Independent Online

This afternoon's Wimbledon men's final should be a close match, a great match. And a match won by Pat Rafter. When this tournament started I couldn't see anyone standing in the way of Pete Sampras' record 13th Grand Slam, but two factors have intervened: the champion is playing with an injury and the Australian challenger isin sensational form, and full ofconfidence.

This afternoon's Wimbledon men's final should be a close match, a great match. And a match won by Pat Rafter. When this tournament started I couldn't see anyone standing in the way of Pete Sampras' record 13th Grand Slam, but two factors have intervened: the champion is playing with an injury and the Australian challenger isin sensational form, and full ofconfidence.

I don't think Sampras is faking his shin injury, as some people are suggesting. You can tell it is definitely bothering him, but he has managed to get away with it quite well so far because he has had a very easy draw. On occasion, he has reminded everybody what an incredible player he is on grass, but he has not had anybody really pushing him. Until now.

Pete's problem is that Rafter is going to get a high percentage of first serves in. So Sampras is going to have to hit a lot of clean winners, because Pat volleys so well and he is going to make Pete play a lot of balls. He is going to chip, he is going to come in every time he gets the chance, he is going to show something totally different to what Pete has faced over the last two weeks. And he is going to be on such a high after beating Andre Agassi. That is why I think he is such a good shot to win.

To be honest, I didn't think Rafter could beat Agassi when you took into account the fact that Pat had played so few matches in the last nine months because of his shoulder operation. I didn't think he would be tournament-tough enough to beat Agassi when it came down to it, but he proved me totally wrong. The most impressive thing was the way he reacted in the fifth set. He had just lost the fourth, he had been hitting balls all day long off his shoetops, unbelievable volleys, and had to be tired because he hadn't played a match like this for ages.

Yet in the fifth set he came out against a player supposedly in better form and suddenly served 80 per cent of first serves in. He simply went to a different level. So I don't see why he won't play exceptionally well again today. He has already won two Grand Slams, he's not some novice. Admittedly, he hasn't played in the final at Wimbledon before, but he certainly didn't show any nerves against Agassi. When he served for the match I thought we were about to see an interesting game, but Pat served two boomers and won it to love.

When you have had the sort of career-threatening injury that Pat has suffered he must have been wondering if he would ever be able to play top-class tennis again. Yet here he is in the greatest final of them all. He will be going out there with a great attitude and, for me, Rafter is such a class act. Not that Pete isn't either. But Rafter is a player who has not yet achieved superstar status, except possibly in Australia. But he has the looks and he has the game and if he wins a couple more Grand Slams to go with those two US Opens, superstardom awaits him.

Wimbledon would be a good title for him to start with. There is also an extra incentive, should he need one. The way Rafter plays, a shoulder injury is tough to get over. There is a lot of wear and tear on his body and he must know that this could be his last big opportunity at Wimbledon. That will definitely be in the back of his mind.

Meantime, what of Tim Henman's future? After his fourth- round loss we are speculating, as ever. Yet why do we bother? Tim has said over and over again that he is not going to replace David Felgate with another coach. David has been with him a long time, they are close friends. Tim regards David as more than just a coach, he is his buddy when they go on the road. Tim needs that desperately.

But would it help to seek other coaching advice? Felgate would be a very silly guy, which I don't think he is, if he didn't think outside advice can occasionally be useful. If you think you are the greatest coach in the world and don't need help, then there is something wrong, and I don't care who you are. If some of the right people would be happy to give him tips here and there and Tim was open to it, it certainly wouldn't do any harm. But if Tim is not open to that sort of thing, it's all out of the question anyway.

In any case, I don't think there is any need to panic because I still believe Henman will win Wimbledon. I am even more convinced of it after this year, when he had an incredibly tough draw. The grass- court players are dropping off. The Krajiceks, the Samprases, are not going to get any better, they can't be around for much longer. Then you look at what's left. There's Mark Philippoussis and there's Greg Rusedski, if he ever gets his mind back on the game.

But there is nobody who is going to petrify Tim on grass. So I still believe he is going to win one day. But outside advice is always helpful.

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