WIMBLEDON, England - Patrick Rafter is playing on borrowed time. He doesn't know how many serves are left in his surgically repaired right shoulder. He doesn't know how many last best chances he'll have to win Wimbledon.
But today, he'll try to turn back the clock and attempt to defeat Andre Agassi in a potentially compelling Wimbledon semifinal.
It's a classic encounter of a serve-and-volley specialist (Rafter) against a baseline return artist (Agassi).
Last year, Agassi routed the Australian in three sets.
This year, Rafter plans to spring a surprise and get into the final against the winner of today's other match between six-time Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras and qualifier Vladimir Voltchkov.
"You have to be on top of your game," Rafter said of the match against Agassi. "You have to hope Andre has one of his bad days. I've played Andre a few times when he's had some really bad days. I just hope he has one."
But if Rafter lets Agassi get on a roll, he's in trouble.
"When Andre gets ahead, he's a tough man to stop," Rafter said.
Whatever happens today, though, can't take away from Rafter's phenomenal progress at Wimbledon. Shoulder surgery to repair a rotator cuff injury in October slowed him, and the comeback frustrated him through the spring.
"I was hoping I'd probably get back quicker than what I did," he said. "There have been many low points. It's hard to pinpoint one. It's sort of gone in waves."
He said "it's a relief" that the shoulder has come back "100 percent."
"I've always felt like if I got my shoulder right, if I do the hard work again, good results pay off," Rafter said. "I thought there was going to be no difference in why it shouldn't pay off again if I'd done the work. I was starting to do the work again."
Being out of the limelight has toughened Rafter. Accustomed to starring roles and top court slots, the two-time U.S. Open champion has been forced to ply his trade far from show courts on the circuit. At Wimbledon, he has ventured to the All England Club's cluttered outback, the outer courts normally reserved for the up-and-comers or down-and-outers.
"I've been pretty moody actually," he said. "When the shoulder gets sore, I've been a little uptight, upset. I probably haven't learned much. I probably should have learned to control myself a little bit better, but I got a little bit upset, disappointed, down in my press conferences, lost a lot of matches.
"But I've always believed that if I've done the work, the draw opens up, you can slip through quickly and quietly," he added. "That's exactly what happened here at Wimbledon."
Now, it gets serious. Agassi is primed, negotiating the draw just like he works a point, like a puzzle. He routed big-serving Mark Philippoussis in the quarterfinals and is eager to play Rafter.
Meanwhile, Sampras has an unusual match against Voltchkov, the 22-year-old from Belarus who is the first men's qualifier to reach the semifinals since John McEnroe in 1977. Hampered by a shin injury, Sampras has managed to roll through the draw, building to what he hopes is another title and a record-breaking 13th Grand Slam championship.
"I think we're taking this injury a little too far," Sampras said. "I have it, and I really don't want to talk about it anymore."
Sampras is getting testy. Another Wimbledon title must be up for grabs.