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Exasperated Agassi exits

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — WIMBLEDON, England - At the bitter end, Andre Agassi snarled.

At the bitter end, he smashed a ball that skipped close to a lineswoman, who had heard him curse in the match and reported him to the umpire.

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At the bitter end, he was ousted from Wimbledon in what might have been his last, best chance to win the tournament.

Yesterday, Agassi lost a heartbreaker of a men's semifinal against Patrick Rafter, 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 8-6.

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He lost when he was two points from winning, lost in one of the better semifinals seen at Wimbledon, lost against a player who has been chasing him here for three years.

Was he angry? You bet.

Was he able to provide a cogent analysis of what occurred? No way.

"I have no ability to assess the quality of the match, especially when I come on the losing end," Agassi said. "It's going to take me weeks to assess the quality of that match."

While No. 3 Rafter beat No. 2 Agassi for the second straight year in the Wimbledon semifinals, Rafter's opponent in tomorrow's championship was still undetermined.

No. 6 Tim Henman held a 2-1 lead in sets against Goran Ivanisevic when play was suspended because of poor light after a rainstorm swept through Wimbledon. Britain has waited 63 years for one of its men to reach the final, and will have to wait a little longer.

The semifinal match was due to be completed today, starting at 8 a.m., followed by the women's final between Venus Williams and Justine Henin.

Ivanisevic, bidding to become the first wild card to reach a Grand Slam final, was serving in the fourth set at 1-2, 40-30 when showers pelted the All England Club. Ivanisevic won the first set 7-5 while Henman, attempting to become the first Briton to reach the men's final since 1938, rallied to win the second set 7-6 (6) and rolled through the third set 6-0.

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Whatever frustration Henman and Britain felt with the delay would have paled in comparison to the frustration Agassi exhibited in losing to Rafter.

Serving for the match at 5-4 in the final set, Agassi raced to a 30-15 lead, was two points from winning, and blew it. He smacked a forehand into the net, slapped a backhand wide, and was frozen by a Rafter cross-court volley.

"Well, I mean, really, there wasn't much more I could do," Agassi said. "I thought I was playing really well. I had so many opportunities. He just kept coming up with the goods at the right time."

At 6-all, Agassi fell apart in a desperate bid to break Rafter's serve. He tossed away a break point when Rafter hit a solid volley. Then, after slamming a backhand return wide, Agassi apparently cursed, an obscenity picked up by a lineswoman, Wendy Smith. Like a hall monitor in a school, she raced to the chair umpire, Mike Morrissey, who assessed Agassi a code violation warning.

Agassi was upset. Did he think the call was unfair?

"Yeah, big-time. Big-time," he said, adding cryptically, "I blame her husband for that."

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Rafter won the game on the next point when Agassi netted a backhand return.

"What affected him was that lady who reported him," Rafter said. "You know, I think, just let it go. Only one person heard it. It's not that big a deal."

In the final game, Agassi gave up his first three points on serve, saved two match points, but lost when Rafter smacked a backhand cross court.

As he jogged to the net, Agassi smacked a ball in the direction of the lineswoman.

"I meant to hit that in the net," Agassi said.

Earlier, Agassi was enraged by line calls serving at 2-3 in the fourth set. He gave up the break and got a linesman moved to another line. The next time he served, Agassi nearly hit the linesman with a 122-mph serve.

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"Yeah, I was trying to hit the line, and it just got a little bit away from me," Agassi said.

Agassi will be fined $2,000 for the audible obscenity by tournament referee Alan Mills, who didn't appear concerned about Agassi hitting the ball in the lineswoman's direction.

"I just think he lost it," Mills said. "He hit a ball and it went near a certain lady. He didn't hit her. She was athletic."

The match truly hurt Agassi, the 1992 champion who beat Rafter in straight sets to get to the 1999 final but lost in the fifth set to Rafter last year.

"The closer you get to winning, the harder it is to accept," Agassi said. "He won the fifth set decisively last year, and this year I had a lot of chances. You know, it's more disappointing."

Rafter deserved a lot of credit. He smacked 30 aces, playing with skill and perseverance. Losing his serve to open the fifth set, he still hung around, chipping and charging to rattle Agassi, get back the break, and take the match.

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Rafter said there are "maybe one in a hundred, one in 200 matches, that you play [when] something like that happens. You've just got to hang in every match. That's pretty well what I did. Got very lucky."

Rafter is more than lucky. The Australian defines grit and grace on the grass. In what may be his last Wimbledon, he aims for a first title.

"I'll take any Grand Slam, anything," he said. "They're all very difficult to win, and they're all very prestigious in their own little way. Wimbledon has always been something that has been pretty exciting for a lot of Australians."

He's in the final. Opponent to be determined.

"I don't want to get too carried away with the whole situation," Rafter said. "I still have one match to go."

Feature matches

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Today's matches at Wimbledon:

Men's semifinal

8 a.m.: Completion of match between Tim Henman, England, vs. Goran Ivanisevic, Croatia, with Henman leading 5-7, 7-6, 6-0, 2-1. Winner plays Patrick Rafter, Australia, tomorrow

Women's final

9 a.m.: Venus Williams, United States, vs. Justine Henin, Belgium TV: 9 a.m., Chs. 11, 4


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