Rafter Hoping Agassi Has a Bad Day

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

WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Andre Agassi's semifinal opponent at Wimbledon sells lots of posters, draws crowds of fawning fans and makes the girls squeal when he changes shirts between games.

Yes, when it comes to sex appeal, Patrick Rafter can hold his own. Whether he can beat Agassi on grass courts is another matter.

The answer comes Friday, when Rafter bids for a breakthrough on the surface that should best suit his athletic serve-and-volley game. The two-time U.S. Open champion has never reached a Wimbledon final, and he'll have his hands full against Agassi, who appears to be improving with each match.

``You hope Andre has one of his bad days,'' Rafter said with a smile. ``I've played Andre a few times when he's had some really bad days. I just hope he has one.''

Rafter is 3-7 against Agassi, with two of the losses at Wimbledon, including a straight-set defeat in last year's semifinals. Still, the Australian is the best bet to prevent an all-American men's final.

Six-time champion Pete Sampras is a heavy favorite in the other match Friday. He plays Belorussian Vladimir Voltchkov, the first qualifier to reach the men's semifinals since John McEnroe in 1977.

Rafter's run to the final four is not as shocking, but still a surprise. Following shoulder surgery last October, he lost eight of his first 15 matches this year. It was a rough stretch, and Rafter, 27, began talking about retirement.

``I've been pretty moody,'' he admitted. ``When the shoulder gets sore, I've been a little bit uptight and upset.''

Then he won a grasscourt warmup tournament in Holland, and since arriving at Wimbledon he has dropped just one set in five matches.

``It's nice to see Pat playing well,'' Agassi said. ``He's a great athlete with a lot to offer the sport. He's one of the best competitors out there, if not the best.''

The 12th-seeded Rafter has yet to face a seeded opponent. Still, with a 10-match winning streak, he's playing his best tennis since winning the U.S. Open for the second year in a row in 1998.

``I was hoping I'd get back quicker than what I did,'' Rafter said. ``Now it's just more of a relief, just satisfying that the work's starting to pay off that I've done with the shoulder. Now it's back to 100 percent.''

Rafter's serve will need to be in top form against Agassi, whose return is widely regarded as the game's best. But the match may hinge on how Rafter fares against Agassi's underrated serve.

In their two previous meetings at Wimbledon, Rafter never broke serve. And the second-seeded Agassi, who overcame two match points to beat Todd Martin in the second round last week, has since won three matches without losing his serve.

``Against someone like Andre, you can't just get the ball back over the net on your return,'' Rafter said. ``You have to do something with it. He opens up the court on his serve, and he just rips the next shot.''

Everyone knows about Agassi's groundstrokes. Few know anything about Voltchkov, who at 237th is the lowest-ranked Wimbledon semifinalist in the open era.

``I've never seen him play,'' Sampras said.

Voltchkov, 22, has lasted longer than even he expected, which is why he had to play his quarterfinal match in borrowed shorts and donated shoes. He honed his grasscourt game on artificial turf in his hometown of Minsk, and also spent time at the Brooklyn Racket Club in a portion of the New York borough heavily populated by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

``I guess I just keep I hope rolling,'' he said, his English a notch below his tennis. ``Now it's just you go out there and you enjoy every minute of being on Centre Court.''

Voltchkov will pull off perhaps the biggest upset in tennis history if he beats the top-seeded Sampras, who is bidding for a men's record 13th Grand Slam title. But Sampras has been unable to practice this week because of tendinitis above his left ankle, and he sounded less than confident after beating Jan-Michael Gambill in the quarterfinals.

``It's been different, not practicing,'' Sampras said. ``It's a little unsettling. ... If I don't win here, it's OK.''