Agassi, Rafter, Sampras Win

Wednesday, July 5th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi are one round away from another Grand Slam final.

Sampras overcame a tough four-set match Wednesday with unseeded American Jan-Michael Gambill, winning 6-4, 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-4, to close in on his seventh Wimbledon title and record-13th Grand Slam championship.

Agassi blunted Mark Philippoussis, the game's biggest server, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-4 to stay on course for another showdown with Sampras.

Sampras beat Agassi in last year's final for his sixth title in seven years. The two Americans have played in three other Grand Slam championship matches, with Sampras holding a 2-1 edge.

First, Sampras will face Vladimir Voltchkov. The 22-year-old from Belarus who beat Byron Black 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 6-4 to become the first qualifier to reach the men's semis since John McEnroe in 1977.

Sampras can reach the final without having played a single seeded player.

Agassi will play serve-and-volley specialist Patrick Rafter, the 12th-seeded Australian who overwhelmed unseeded Alexander Popp of Germany 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (1).

While Agassi put on a command performance to win handily, Sampras exhibited rare signs of weakness against Gambill and had to rely on his big serve on key points to pull out the match — extending his winning streak at Wimbledon to 26 straight.

Sampras looked flat for much of the match, committing uncharacteristic sloppy errors and letting Gambill take control of rallies with his two-fisted shots.

But Sampras did what it takes to win on grass — hold serve. He hit 26 aces, firing the final one down the middle on match point.

Gambill had 23 aces but never broke, going 0-3 on break points. Sampras, meanwhile, converted on three of his 11 break points.

Gambill called for a trainer late in the second set and put a wrap around his left thigh. He clutched at the back of his leg and tugged at the wrap throughout the match, but appeared to be running freely.

Gambill hit a running forehand pass down the line to move ahead in the second-set tiebreak, then followed with an ace, a forehand volley and a serve winner to even the match.

Sampras looked vulnerable in the third set but Gambill missed his chance to take charge. Two break points slipped by in the sixth game, with Sampras saving one with an ace.

The match turned in Sampras' favor for good when Gambill sprayed an easy forehand wide to drop serve and fall behind 5-4. Sampras served out the set in the next game, which ended with a spectacular corner-to-corner rally and Gambill sailing a desperate forehand long.

Gambill, his shirt bloodied from an apparent cut on his chest, called for the trainer twice in the fourth set. He saved two break points in the seventh game, but Sampras got the final break two games later, drilling a forehand pass down the line.

After his ace on match point, Sampras showed little emotion, offering only a brief, halfhearted wave to the crowd, realizing he will have to raise his game to win the title yet again.

On paper, Sampras should have little trouble with Voltchkov.

The Belarussian, Wimbledon junior champion in 1996, had played only in lower-tier Challenger events this year and came to the All England Club ranked No. 237. He learned to play tennis on a synthetic grass court outside the car factory in Minsk where his father worked.

Agassi vs. Philippoussis had shaped up as a classic duel between the counter-puncher and huge hitter. But the match turned out to be one-sided and anticlimactic, as Philippoussis failed to raise his level and push Agassi to the limit.

``He played awesome,'' former women's champion Steffi Graf said of her boyfriend Agassi. ``He obviously didn't make many unforced errors. I would say it was a flawless match.''

Philippoussis slammed 22 aces, bringing his total to 154 for five matches. But he also had six double faults and 15 unforced errors, compared to just two and seven for Agassi.

Agassi has been in a slump since winning the Australian Open in January. But he has found his game at Wimbledon, where he was champion in 1992.

``I said all along, if I can get through the first week, I can start bringing out different parts of my game on this court,'' Agassi said. ``Today I managed to keep the ball out of his wheelhouse. I feel great that it has some around at this particular time. I never felt like my game was missing something. I just needed to win some matches.''

Agassi was credited with only two return winners, but he regularly put pressure on Philippoussis' serve. His two breaks were enough to clinch victory. Philippoussis, meanwhile, failed to convert of any of his five break points.

``Andre is such a great front-runner,'' Philippoussis said. ``Double faults cost me both my service games. Against a player like that who returns so well, you have to step it up, and sometimes it can cost you.''

Agassi used clever ploys to produce two key mini-breaks in the tiebreaker. He moved inside the baseline on a 135 mph serve and cracked a forehand return which Philippoussis couldn't handle. On the next point, Agassi stood some 10 feet behind the baseline, forcing another error by Philippoussis.

Agassi ended the set with his first ace. The first break of the match came in the seventh game of the second set, when Philippoussis double faulted at 30-40. Agassi saved three break points in the next game and, with the help of his second ace, held to take the set, turning to his entourage in the guest box and pumping his fists.

The match was all but over.

Agassi hit a running forehand pass to break for 2-1 in the third. Serving for the match at 5-4, he hit his seventh ace to go up 40-0. He double faulted on the first match point but converted the second.

Agassi bounded in glee, then bowed and blew kisses to the crowd in his ritual victory celebration.

Rafter, the two-time U.S. Open champion who returned to the circuit in February after shoulder surgery, advanced to the Wimbledon semis for the second straight year. He lost to Agassi in last year's final four.

``I just hope Andre has one of his bad days,'' Rafter said. ``He doesn't have many of those. Andre has no weaknesses in his game.''

Rafter's run to the semifinals marks a sudden resurgence for a player who has struggled to regain his form since undergoing rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder last fall.

``It's sort of unexpected and even more unexpected for everyone in the locker room,'' he said. ``I hadn't shown any real signs of coming back after the shoulder surgery. It's very satisfying.''

Popp, playing in only his second Grand Slam tournament, looked out of his league for most of the match, hurting himself with unforced errors and double faults.

Rafter's only lapse came at the end of the third set when he was broken while serving for the match at 5-4 and Popp moved ahead 6-5. But the Australian raced through the tiebreak to close the match, celebrating by throwing his towel into the stands.

``It wasn't a pretty match,'' Rafter said. ``Alexander was struggling with everything. He was tight. It was his biggest match ever. I just got the ball back and let him make the errors.''

Venus and Serena Williams, who will face each other in the women's semifinals Thursday, advanced to the doubles semifinals Wednesday by beating Martina Navratilova and Mariaan de Swardt 4-6, 6-2, 6-1.

The defeat marked the end of the 43-year-old Navratilova's return to Wimbledon, where she won nine singles titles and 19 overall. She lost earlier in the mixed doubles.

The other semifinal will pit defending champion Lindsay Davenport against unseeded 17-year-old Australian Jelena Dokic.