Mac-Agassi doesn't wilt in the rain Anticipation grows for stylish semifinal

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — WIMBLEDON, England -- They were talking about it in the players' tea room at the All England Club. They were talking about it in the press rooms. They probably were talking about it in the players' locker rooms.

"It's too bad that McEnroe and Agassi isn't the final, isn't it?" asked former men's tour player and Wimbledon semifinalist Dick Stockton.


Talk was all anybody did yesterday at rain-soaked Wimbledon, where the much-anticipated semifinal match between Americans John McEnroe and Andre Agassi was pushed back until today.

The McEnroe-Agassi match and the other, less glamorous semifinal between former U.S. Open champion Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia were postponed because of light, but steady showers.


"It gives us a day to make McEnroe and Agassi even bigger," said one British journalist. "If it rains another day, it could be as big as McEnroe and [Bjorn] Borg."

Those classics are not likely to be repeated in this era of power tennis. But the excitement has been building for McEnroe vs. Agassi -- the 33-year-old, three-time Wimbledon champion vs. the 21-year-old known for making slick television commercials.

It is a battle of shot-makers, one who relies on touch and the other who has blitzed through the draw here on the strength of his service return. It is a battle of two of the most brash -- some would say obnoxious -- players in the game's modern era.

"After Jimmy [Connors] -- he was always the guy that returned my serve better than anyone -- Andre's taken over that mantle," McEnroe said after his rain-delayed victory over Guy Forget of France in straight sets Thursday. "He's probably the best returner in the game right now."

"I'm tremendously excited," the 12th-seeded Agassi said shortly after holding off another three-time champion, Boris Becker, in five sets. "I don't think there's one other player that's happier for John than me. I really take a vested interest in his match. I don't know why, I just seemed to like the guy."

Despite their age difference, McEnroe and Agassi have similar personalities. When he was 22 and the No. 1 player in the game, McEnroe raged at a chair umpire here, calling him "the pits of the world" and threatening not to play another match the gentleman officiated.

When the chair umpire in his quarterfinal against Becker overruled a line call on match point, and called a double fault instead, Agassi walked over and said, "Never do that again." Unlike McEnroe in his earlier days, Agassi is extremely popular with the British fans, especially the schoolgirls.

But it is the contrast in their playing styles that makes today's match a lot more intriguing than Sampras' semifinal against Ivanisevic. Though he is still a bit awkward at the net, Agassi compensates with a devastating service return, hit from either -- side. McEnroe has defused and confused every big server he has played.


Even Agassi seems to be caught up in the hype of his match with McEnroe. But after he heard Agassi calling it "the most exciting moment of my career," McEnroe said with a smirk. "He's going to be very honored to play me, but if by some chance I win, he won't be so happy."

Though they haven't played in three years, and have met only three times in their careers, McEnroe and Agassi know each other's games well -- perhaps better than they know each other. They have been Davis Cup teammates and they spent much of last week practicing together. They even went out to eat a couple of times.

"I think we hit it off well, and we feed off each other well," said McEnroe, who has won two of the three matches they have played. "I mean he's young and he's really inquisitive. He's very, very smart. He asks good questions, and it's nice to have someone you're working with respond so well when he follows a game plan."

Said Agassi, "Whatever he's helped me, whatever he's been a part of with my game, it's something that he's probably second-guessing today."

It will be interesting to see if the crowd reacts along generational lines, with those over 30 rooting for McEnroe and those under 30 rooting for Agassi. And will there be much interest, if any, in Sampras and Ivanisevic?

Though Sampras' appearance here makes it three Americans in the Wimbledon semifinals for the first time since 1982 -- and guarantees a U.S. player in the final for the first time since McEnroe beat Connors here in 1984 -- Sampras is barely noticed in the shadows of his two controversial compatriots.


The match between the fifth-seeded Sampras and the eighth-seeded Ivanisevic is expected to be the antithesis of McEnroe-Agassi. Power instead of finesse, a pall rather than appeal, short points as opposed to plenty of strategy.

"For two hours [of Sampras-Ivanisevic] you're going to be saying what's wrong with the power tennis game," said Stockton, standing outside the tea room yesterday. "And for five hours [of McEnroe-Agassi] you're going to say, this is the most unbelievable match you've ever seen."

For hours on end yesterday at Wimbledon, they talked about McEnroe and Agassi. Today, perhaps, the talk will end and so might the rain.

Wimbledon on TV

NBC will begin its coverage at 9 a.m. EDT (channels 2, 4) with the men's semifinals (joined in progress) and the women's championship. Both of the men's semifinals will start at 6:30 a.m. EDT, followed on Centre Court by the women's championship. Tomorrow, NBC plans live coverage of the men's singles final beginning at 9 a.m. EDT.

Men's semifinal matchups


The head-to-head matchups for the Wimbledon men's semifinals:

McEnroe vs. Agassi (McEnroe leads 2-1)

1986: Stratton Mountain, quarterfinal, McEnroe, 6-3, 6-3.

1988: Los Angeles, semifinal, Agassi, 6-4, 0-6, 6-4.

1989: Dallas, quarterfinal, McEnroe, 4-6, 3-0, retired.

Sampras vs. Ivanisevic


(Tied 2-2)

1990: Long Island, quarterfinal, Ivanisevic, 7-6, 6-3.

1990: Grand Slam Cup, Munich, quarterfinal, Sampras, 7-6, 6-7, 8-6.

1991: Manchester, final, Ivanisevic, 6-4, 6-4.

1991: Paris Indoor, Round of 16, Sampras, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6.