Stylists create men's final full of substance


WIMBLEDON, England - One is a swashbuckling Australian in the midst of a career comeback.

The other is a quiet American on an historic mission.

They're Patrick Rafter and Pete Sampras, hard-serving, hard-charging tennis-playing stylists ready to meet in today's Wimbledon men's final.

Rafter is Wimbledon's outsider, seeded 12th, rising from shoulder surgery in October to a final match for tennis' ultimate prize, a journey so unexpected he waited until the last possible moment to fly in his parents from Australia to see today's championship match.

Sampras is Wimbledon's ultimate insider, a six-time winner on a record-setting course. If Sampras wins today, he'll match William Renshaw's record of seven Wimbledon men's singles titles secured in the 19th century, and surpass Australia's Roy Emerson for a record 13th Grand Slam championship.

"I'd love to break it here," Sampras said of the Grand Slam record that has been dangling before him for a year.

"I'm not looking at it as pressure," he said. "I'm looking at it as a great moment for tennis, a great moment for me. I'm going to give it the best effort out there, and hopefully, use the experience that I have maintained over the past six, seven years to maybe get me through."

With Sampras at Wimbledon, where he's 58-5 lifetime, it's usually not if he will win, but how. This year has been different, though. Hampered by tendinitis from the top of his left foot to his shin, he has been unable to practice between matches. If it were any other tournament, he likely would have pulled out.

But this is England in the summertime, cool and gray with another Wimbledon title on the line. Plus, he caught a break with a draw that became a jaunt through a valley of non-seeds. Sampras didn't have to meet a player in the top 40 on his way to another final.

"You know, when you're going through the battle, you can't think of your place in history or your legacy," he said. "It is the match at hand. That's the attitude you have to have."

He said he plans no special preparations for what could be a special match.

"You wake up Sunday morning [today], prepare for your final," he said. "When you're competing, you're in kind of your own little world. You're not thinking about history, your place in tennis history. It's kind of something I'll probably appreciate much more when I'm done."

Sampras-Rafter is one of those delightful tennis matchups difficult to call. Their serve-and-volley styles should produce the usual grass-court theatrics appreciated by the game's purists. Look for quick points, decisive service breaks and slow-building drama.

"We're going to be coming in on both serves," Sampras said. "It really comes down to who returns better. That's really the key to the match."

In the past, Rafter and Sampras have aired their differences in the pressroom. But whatever problems they may have had have been resolved.

"We get along fine," Rafter said. "I called him up and resolved all our differences. I respect Pete for a lot of things. I think in a lot of ways he has lightened up over this year. He's very approachable, and he's a good fellow."

Whatever happens in the final, Rafter has supplied Wimbledon with a lot of heart and daring over two weeks. To come back so quickly and decisively from surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, as Rafter has, is quite a tennis feat. More than most competitors, the two-time U.S. Open champion realizes he is playing on borrowed time, saying doctors have told him they don't know how many serves are left in his right shoulder.

"I'm hoping I can get a few more out than what they expect," Rafter said of his plans to confound the doctors.

He said he hasn't changed his style or tactics since his surgery. At Wimbledon, he has negotiated the perilous bottom half of the men's draw, beating Todd Woodbridge in a testing all-Australian opening-round match, and No. 2 Andre Agassi in a captivating five-set semifinal.

Agassi said Rafter "looks like he has found his game."

"I always thought Rafter was a good enough athlete to win on any surface," Agassi said. "On grass courts he can really keep the pressure on."

But this isn't just any grass court. It's Centre Court. And on Wimbledon's final Sunday, it is usually the place where Sampras plays best.

He may be hurting, but history is beckoning.

"You just let it all hang out, just go out there and not think about it [the injury]," Sampras said. "The adrenaline, the occasion, can really get you through a lot of tough situations on the court. I'm sure that will be the case."

Road to men's final

(Seeds in parentheses) Pete Sampras

First round: def. Jiri Vanek, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.

Second round: def. Karol Kucera, 7-6 (9), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Third round: def. Justin Gimelstob, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.

Fourth round: def. Jonas Bjorkman, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.

Quarterfinals: def. Jan-Michael Gambill, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4.

Semifinals: def. Vladimir Voltchkov, 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-4.

Championship: vs. Patrick Rafter (12). Patrick Rafter

First round: def. Jamie Delgado, 6-3, 7-6 (7), 6-1.

Second round: def. Todd Woodbridge, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

Third round: def. Rainer Schuttler, 6-2, 7-6 (2), 6-3.

Fourth round: def. Thomas Johansson, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-1.

Quarterfinals: def. Alexander Popp, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (1).

Semifinals: def. Andre Agassi (2), 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.

Championship: vs. Pete Sampras (1).

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