Sampras, Rafter Advance to Final

Friday, July 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Pete Sampras is one win from Grand Slam history.

He sailed into the Wimbledon final with a straight-sets victory Friday over qualifier Vladimir Voltchkov, keeping him on course for his seventh title at the All England Club and record-breaking 13th Grand Slam championship.

``I'd love to break it here,'' Sampras said. ``I'm looking at it as a great moment for tennis, a great moment for me.''

The top-seeded Sampras will face a tough test Sunday from serve-and-volley master Patrick Rafter, who overcame Andre Agassi 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 to become the first Australian to reach the Wimbledon final in 13 years.

``You don't want to play Pete at any time, but especially not at Wimbledon,'' Rafter said. ``But if I can play like I did against Andre today, I think I have a chance.''

While hobbling slightly from the tendinitis above his left ankle, Sampras had a relatively easy time in dispatching the 247th-ranked Voltchkov 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-4 in 1 hour, 39 minutes.

Sampras extended his Wimbledon winning streak to 27 matches and ran his record to 52-1 over seven years. He can equal William Renshaw's record of seven Wimbledon singles titles and surpass Roy Emerson for sole possession of the career mark of Grand Slam wins with 13.

``My legacy is really the last thing on my mind on Sunday,'' Sampras said. ``When you're going through the battle, you can't think of your place in history. It's the match at hand.''

Sampras has reached the final without facing a single seeded player. The last time any player has done that was in 1981, when John McEnroe beat Bjorn Borg in the final.

Voltchkov, a 22-year-old from Belarus who hadn't played in a single senior-level tournament this year, put up a credible performance against Sampras — making several diving volleys — but was clearly in a different league.

``I tried to fight, but he was just too good,'' Voltchkov said. ``I mean, I didn't have one chance on his serve.''

Voltchkov was still close, down 5-4 in the tiebreak, when he missed a simple forehand volley. Stunned and puzzled by what he had just done, Voltchkov dropped his racket, crouched at the net and ran a hand through his hair.

``In practice, you probably hit a hundred out of a hundred like that,'' he said. ``You miss one there. I guess it's the nerves.''

Sampras won the tiebreak on the next point, and the match was essentially over.

A trainer came out at 5-2 in the second set to spray a numbing agent on Sampras' ankle. While he appeared to favor the ankle on some points, on others Sampras ran full speed to smack winners.

Ever since the tendinitis flared during his second-round match against Karol Kucera, Sampras has skipped practice between matches and received daily treatment. He said he would have pulled out of any other tournament.

``It's definitely been a struggle,'' Sampras said. ``There's nothing I can do about it. ... You just have to play through it. As long as I have my right arm, on grass I'm still a threat.''

Sampras said he will try to practice Saturday.

He holds a 9-4 edge in head-to-head meetings with Rafter. But the Australian has won three out of the last four. They have never played on grass.

Sampras and Rafter have feuded in the past. But both men said they have smoothed over their differences.

``We get along fine,'' Rafter said. ``It's all but behind us now.''

Said Sampras: ``It's fine. We respect each other as people and as competitors. It's over and done with.''

Rafter is the first Aussie in the Wimbledon final since Pat Cash, who won the title in 1987.

He played a masterful grass-court match against Agassi, mixing his acrobatic serve-and-volley game with off-speed shots.

``Today was a match that I couldn't have played any better under the circumstances, on a big court against one of the best players ever,'' Rafter said.

The victory marked a dramatic return from the shoulder operation in October that sidelined Rafter for five months. Earlier this year, the two-time U.S. Open champion suggested he was considering retirement.

``It's been a long road back,'' he said. ``That's the most satisfying part about it. Now I'm back in the final. It has been probably a big shock.''

Said Agassi: ``If he's healthy, he's been playing some matches, he's right up there with the best of them.''

Friday's match was a repeat of last year's semifinal, won by Agassi in straight sets.

The high-quality match provided a classic contrast between Agassi, the consummate returner and counter-puncher, and Rafter, the serve-and-volley specialist.

Rafter chipped and charged on Agassi's second serves. In baseline rallies, he relied on a soft, slice backhand to rob Agassi of the pace on which he thrives.

In the end, Agassi's serve let him down. He served eight double faults, several at crucial moments. Agassi's final double came in the sixth game of the fifth set, with Rafter converting the decisive break on the next point to go up 4-2.

The 12th-seeded Rafter served 18 aces and had seven double faults. He roamed all over the court, knocking off 35 volley winners.

The second-seeded Agassi, who won Wimbledon in 1992 by staying at the baseline, played the same way against Rafter. He cracked 18 passing shot winners and moved in on returns to keep pressure on Rafter's serve.

But Rafter's superior serve and more varied game proved the difference.

``I was always behind,'' Agassi said. ``He stepped it up and played enough quality shots at the right time. He played a great fifth set.''

Agassi hadn't been broken in his last three matches this week, and hadn't lose serve to Rafter in their previous two Wimbledon encounters. But Rafter broke him five times Friday.

Agassi said he missed too many first serves, allowing Rafter to ``zone in'' on his second serves. That forced Agassi to go for big serves, resulting in the double faults.

``You don't win Slams by getting careful at those moments,'' Agassi said. ``You have to pick your opportunities. At 30-all, 2-3 in the fifth, I just went for a 97 mph serve to his forehand. It was breezy out there and it got away from me.''

The all-American women's final is Saturday, pitting defending champion Lindsay Davenport against Venus Williams.