Odd couple: Agassi vs. Ivanisevic McEnroe, Sampras routed in semifinals

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — WIMBLEDON, England -- They have been looked upon as grass court anomalies, sideshows rather than headliners at the All England Club, not apparent heirs to the throne when this year's Wimbledon began.

Today, Andre Agassi of Las Vegas and Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia will be the main event, two of the lowest seeds and youngest players to share Centre Court for the gentlemen's championship. One from this unlikely odd couple will emerge with his first Grand Slam title.


Their impressive victories in yesterday's semifinals proved further what everybody in tennis is starting to learn: that Agassi has the best return of serve in the game, that Ivanisevic has the best serve, and that neither needs a strong volley with which to win here.

Agassi took advantage of John McEnroe's erratic serving and turned it into a 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 demolition of the former three-time champion. After losing a first-set tiebreaker, Ivanisevic pummeled former U.S. Open champion Pete Sampras with 36 aces in a 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-2 victory.


"Goran is a little different than the guys that I have played, Boris [Becker] and John," said Agassi, 22, the 12th seed. "They depend on their serves to be good, but they are ready for the volley. I think Goran's the kind of guy who depends on his serve only."

"We will see how good he is going to return because twice in a row Ibeat him last year, so he doesn't like to play me very much," said Ivanisevic, 20, the eighth seed. "He did not return very well. I was serving too good, so we see."

Agassi's ability to jump all over McEnroe's serve, especially his second serve, kept him in complete control nearly from the start. Twice in the first set, McEnroe double faulted on break point and, despite breaking Agassi once, always seemed to be playing catch-up.

McEnroe led once the entire match, at 4-3 in the opening set, but constantly saw Agassi's backhand and forehand returns whizzing off his racket or by his ear. Even when Agassi mis-hit a forehand return, it turned into a lob that went over McEnroe's head and landed squarely on the baseline.

"I think the closest I came was when I got back ahead 4-3 in the first," said McEnroe, who failed to fend off a single one of the seven break points in the match. "I thought I had gotten over the initial hump. It was incredible how well he was seeing the ball from the first couple of points."

Agassi was relentless, continuing his near-perfect performance from the fifth set of his quarterfinal victory over former three-time champion Becker. He was so focused that he didn't even know the first point in the final set was inadvertently given to McEnroe.

McEnroe, meanwhile, was merely frustrated. He did not resort to any of the histrionics that have marred his play at Wimbledon during the years, mostly because he realized early in the match that Agassi was too strong.

Actually, McEnroe might have known this for awhile, from the first time they practiced here before the tournament began.


"He was already returning really well," said McEnroe, the last American to win Wimbledon when he beat Jimmy Connors in 1984. "Just taking my serve and blowing it by me. This was like a day or two after he got here. So I knew what he was capable of."

It was no secret what Ivanisevic was capable of doing, either. He had blasted his way through the draw on the strength of his 130-mile per hour serve. Coming into his match with Sampras, no slouch himself when it comes to serving, Ivanisevic had a Wimbledon-record 133 aces.

After the two players traded tiebreakers, Ivanisevic and his rocket serve began to wear Sampras down. Breaking Sampras at love to go ahead 5-4 in the third set, Ivanisevic clearly had the match in his left hand. When Sampras was broken against in the first game of the fourth set, it was more obvious.

"Going against the type of guy where he serves so big, he just put so much pressure on my service games," said Sampras, 20, who had only 13 aces and six double faults. "I was always kind of struggling to do my games. I was managing to pull them out in the first couple of sets. I felt like if I double faulted and missed a couple of volleys, all of a sudden the set's going to be over."

All of a sudden, it wasn't only the fourth set that was over, but the match and Sampras' run at the title as well. By the time the smoke had cleared -- not only did Ivanisevic crack 36 aces, six short of John Feaver's tournament record, but he had 32 other service winners -- Sampras was gone.

Ivanisevic has been better than Agassi in both of their previous matches. They came in the quarterfinals of indoor tournaments last year. The first was close -- a 7-5, 7-6 victory in Sydney, Australia. The second was not -- a 6-3, 6-4 victory in Tokyo.


But Agassi believes he is a better player than he was then, a stronger person than the one who lost in his previous three Grand Slam finals. The first was a four-set loss to Andres Gomez at the 1990 French Open.

The second was an embarrassing, straight-set loss to Sampras at the U.S. Open later that year. The last came at the French, a five-set loss to Jim Courier a year ago.

"I feel a lot different, I feel I've been around the block a few times," said Agassi, who was ranked as high as third in the world in 1988. "I have been in this situation a few times. I played in the fifth set of the Davis Cup a couple of times.

While the civil war at home has affected Ivanisevic at times this year, about the only thing that has bothered Ivanisevic here has been his back. But even that is no longer a distraction, especially by today.

"It is OK, I think," he said. "I mean, I am serving a lot of aces, it is good. I can not complain. It is sore, but I don't care. Final is final. With sore back or broken back. You go in and that is it."