WIMBLEDON, England -- It was an epic in search of an ending.
On and on they went in the fifth set, with no tiebreaker and no excuses, trading serves and groans as the fans gasped and the tennis balls caromed around Centre Court like spent shells. The games ticked off 12 24 28.
Finally, Richard Krajicek cracked. And Goran Ivanisevic, Wimbledon's great-escape artist, won.
"The fifth set was just a horror-thriller," Ivanisevic said after yesterday's heart-pounding 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-7 (5-7), 15-13 triumph launched him into Wimbledon's men's final.
Waiting for Ivanisevic in tomorrow's final will be Pete Sampras, the No. 1 seed and four-time champion who silenced Britain's passionate tennis fans and quashed the dreams of local hope Tim Henman, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.
But for one day, at least, it was No. 14 Ivanisevic who shined brightest at Wimbledon and who emerged triumphant from a nearly never-ending fifth set.
Over the years, many have questioned Ivanisevic's heart. He is a two-time Wimbledon finalist who has broken serving records -- and rackets. His career has been in free fall for nearly six months. Yet in this match, he simply refused to lose to No. 9 Krajicek, the 1997 Wimbledon champion.
"I was never like this in my life," Ivanisevic said. "I just believed I was going to win it."
And yet, he very nearly blew it. Serving for the match at 5-4, 40-15 in the fourth set, Ivanisevic appeared to smash an ace to close the show. The crowd thought the match was over. Even Krajicek thought he was through.
But there was one problem: the ace was a net cord.
"I didn't hear the net, but I heard the machine," Ivanisevic said. "It went beep."
And Ivanisevic nearly went into the tank. Two match points evaporated with a Krajicek backhand return and a double fault. And there was Krajicek, getting the break with a running forehand down the line, and grabbing the fourth-set tiebreaker with a stiff volley.
Ivanisevic slumped to his chair after giving away the set.
"I say, 'My God. OK, now you cannot get it back. You just have to try to win this set and forget it,' " Ivanisevic said.
At Wimbledon, they simply don't do fifth-set tiebreakers. You play until you win, or you drop.
"I don't think anybody bet on me when I lost the fourth set," Ivanisevic said. "Everybody said, 'Maybe it's going to be 6-2, maybe 6-3. He's gone. He's going to lose it.' "
So, they played. And played. And played.
He remained patient as Krajicek unleashed the last of his 42 aces. And then he pounced in the 28th game, shoving a backhand volley to get to match point, and then rocketing a forehand return that Krajicek sent back into the net.
Ivanisevic tossed his racket, his headband, and his towels to the crowd.
Krajicek packed his bags.
Later, Krajicek was asked to sum up Ivanisevic's comeback, and said: "The only thing predictable about him is he's unpredictable. When he's down, it doesn't mean anything."
Sampras-Henman was supposed to be the marquee event. A country in search of a sporting hero was pulling hard for Henman, the first British man to reach the men's semifinals in 25 years and on a mission to become the country's first men's Wimbledon champion since Fred Perry in 1936.
Well, wait 'til next year, Britain.
"I've said all along that when I'm winning, I'm not playing for the nation, so when I lose I'm not letting anyone down," Henman said. "When I'm on the court, it's about myself. I win. I lose. It's as simple as that."
Sampras turned a dramatic stage into a tennis clinic with a serve and a snarl. He growled over calls. He faced down the crowd. He even tossed a bent racket into the stands.
"The atmosphere was great," said Sampras, bidding to equal Bjorn Borg's modern record of five Wimbledon men's titles. "It was tough. You could definitely feel the crowd playing, especially in the second set. This is what it's all about. These are the great matches, and playing someone like Tim, who is a friend, you just go out and play."
Just when the Centre Court crowd was starting to dream of a Henman victory after the 23-year-old won the second set, Sampras shut the door. He was angry with himself. And he wanted to shut up the crowd. So, he broke Henman's serve and grabbed the third set, rocketing a backhand cross-court that Henman nudged into the net.
"That's where he comes up with the goods," Henman said of Sampras.
And then, Sampras rolled through the last set and into the final.
Other players might have celebrated. But not Sampras. He sat down. He took a drink. He left.
"I'm playing well," Sampras said. "It has been a smooth ride."
rTC :. Tomorrow, he faces Ivanisevic and history.
When: Today, 9 a.m.
Who: Jana Novotna vs. Nathalie Tauziat
TV: Channel 11
When: Tomorrow, 9 a.m.
Who: Pete Sampras vs. Goran Ivanisevic
TV: Channel 11
Pub Date: 7/04/98