WIMBLEDON, England - A funny thing happened on the way to an all-American men's final at Wimbledon.
Patrick Rafter crashed the party.
The gutsy Australian with the graceful game overcame swirling, autumn-like winds yesterday and ousted No. 2 Andre Agassi, 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.
It was a gorgeous match with a classic finish, as No. 12 Rafter served Agassi out of Wimbledon to reach his first Wimbledon final, only 10 months after undergoing major shoulder surgery.
"It has been a long road back," Rafter said. "I think that's the most satisfying part about it. It has been probably a big shock."
In tomorrow's final, the irrepressible Rafter will face the inevitable confrontation - a match with Wimbledon's ever-present force and six-time champion, No. 1 Pete Sampras.
Sampras shook off his sore left shin and routed qualifier Vladimir Voltchkov of Belarus, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 6-4, keeping alive a bid for a record 13th Grand Slam title.
"I'm obviously very ecstatic I'm in another final," Sampras said. "Hopefully, I can do it, but it won't be easy."
Rafter-Agassi was a tennis throwback, a brilliant blend of styles and temperaments played out under gray skies on a chilly summer day that left royal box spectators swaddled in tartan blankets.
For those who contend that men's tennis on grass is like watching paint dry, Rafter and Agassi provided a counter argument. In a rematch of last year's semifinal that Agassi won in three sets, the players gave the fans something to savor - long rallies, improbably angled shots, even invention. Rafter pounded over-the-shoulder returns, while Agassi tried to hit back one shot between his legs.
But the match came down to Rafter's chip-and-charge attack against Agassi's relentless passing shots. Keeping his foe under pressure with steel and concentration, Rafter kept chipping away at Agassi's brittle confidence.
"He started serving in every one of the sets," Agassi said. "I was always behind, so it was really tough to expect to keep holding [serve] all the way through. He stepped it up and played enough quality shots at the right time."
The decisive break occurred in the sixth game of the fifth set. With a laser-like backhand and an Agassi double fault, Rafter got to the break, then pushed his adversary over, rifling a forehand crosscourt to go up 4-2.
Agassi never caught up as Rafter rolled through the rest of the set and the match, becoming the first Australian since Pat Cash in 1987 to reach the Wimbledon final.
The five-set thriller left the crowd roaring. But despite competing in a match that brought style and art back to Wimbledon, Agassi was disappointed by the defeat.
"As far as I'm concerned, the match [stunk]," he said.
Rafter was thrilled to be headed to the final. It was in October when he underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. Few expected him to return so quickly and competitively.
"I think I just came back as good as I was playing the year before," said Rafter, a two-time U.S. Open champion.
He said he was hoping that his form would improve for Wimbledon.
"It's always hard to say how well you're going to play here," he said. "I really hadn't had a lot of runs on the board coming into Wimbledon. I guess today shows that I'm probably coming back."
But to make the comeback complete, he'd like to win Wimbledon.
That could prove a difficult job.
Sampras may be hindered by a sore shin and showing less than his usual grass-court brilliance, but until he is finally beaten, he owns Centre Court and Wimbledon.
"As long as I have my right arm on grass, I'm still a threat," Sampras said.
He faced a testing match against Voltchkov, the qualifier with nothing to lose and everything to gain, including a sponsorship contract. Voltchkov showed up for the match in his mismatched clothing ensemble that included the pair of borrowed, baggy shorts from Marat Safin.
"I washed it, of course," he said.
Voltchkov, a 1996 Wimbledon junior champion, admitted it was intimidating stepping on Centre Court for the first time to face the game's great modern champion.
"I really came out there and tried to concentrate on my performance," he said. "I'm happy with the way I was out there."
He took the champ to a first-set tiebreaker, and pressed him repeatedly in the last two sets, as Sampras twice sought treatment from a trainer for his shin. To try to deal with the pain of tendinitis at the top of his foot and shin, Sampras has received acupuncture and cut out all practicing.
"It has definitely been a struggle a little bit," Sampras said. "I'm still here, and I'm obviously very happy that I've gotten to this point. I've worked hard to get here. I'd love to do it."
Who's going to win the final?
No one is quite sure.
Rafter is peaking, while Sampras is struggling with an injury.
"Pat is playing unbelievable tennis right now," Voltchkov said. "But I think it's a matter of how good Pete is going to return."
(seeds in parentheses)
Today's women's final
Venus Williams (5) vs. Lindsay Davenport (2), Ch. 11, 9 a.m.
Tomorrow's men's final
Pete Sampras (1) vs. Patrick Rafter (12), Ch. 11, 9 a.m.