WIMBLEDON, England — Patrick Rafter overcame the blistering returns and passing shots of Andre Agassi to win in five sets Friday and become the first Australian to reach the men's final at Wimbledon in 13 years.
Rafter played a masterful grass-court match, mixing his acrobatic serve-and-volley game with off-speed shots to dismantle Agassi 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 in 3 hours, 18 minutes.
Rafter is the first Aussie in the Wimbledon final since Pat Cash, who won the title in 1987. In Sunday's championship match, he'll meet the winner of the semifinal between six-time champion Pete Sampras and qualifier Vladimir Voltchkov.
Rafter's victory marked a dramatic return from the shoulder surgery in October that kept him out of the game for five months. Earlier this year, he suggested he was considering retirement.
Friday's match was a mirror 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, it was Agassi's serve that let him down. He served eight double faults, several at crucial moments. Agassi's final double fault came in the sixth game of the fifth set, with Rafter converting the decisive break on the next point to go up 4-2.
From that game, a deflated Agassi lost the final 15 points of the match.
The 12th-seeded Rafter served 18 aces and had seven double faults. He roamed all over the court, hitting 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 thought I was going to struggle out there today," Rafter said. "I came out and I played some good stuff on Andre's serve and put him under pressure. I started serving well in the fifth. Everything started coming together when I needed it."
Agassi offered no excuses.
"I was always behind," he said. "He stepped it up and played enough quality shots at the right time. He played a great fifth set . . . I didn't serve as well as I wanted to and made some careless errors. To his credit he played well at the right time."
The all-American women's final is Saturday, pitting defending champion Lindsay Davenport against Venus Williams.
For Davenport, the most overlooked player in women's tennis, it's been another low-key run to the championship match.
The first-week headlines were all about Anna Kournikova, the Russian cover girl who was bounced in the second round. Since then, the spotlight has focused on
the Williams sisters and their unconventional father.
That's just fine with Davenport.
"A lot of the time that's the way I like it," she said. "I don't like to have a lot of hoopla and a lot of action and activity around what I'm doing.
"The only reason why I'm here is just to play tennis, get through it, see what I can achieve and leave all the other business to the other players and let them deal with it all.
"I think that's what has helped me play better. I don't have to deal with a lot of outside things, and just concentrate on my tennis."
There were no distractions Thursday when Davenport swept 17-year-old Australian Jelena Dokic 6-4, 6-2 in 51 minutes.
The match hardly caused a ripple, coming in the wake of the Williams sisters' showdown.
After Venus beat Serena 6-2, 7-6 (3) before a capacity crowd, Centre Court had hundreds of empty seats and a nearly deserted press section when the Davenport-Dokic match began.
Now, Davenport is one win away from adding a fourth Grand Slam title to victories at the 1998 U.S. Open, 1999 Wimbledon and 2000 Australian Open.
Until last year, Davenport struggled at Wimbledon, failing to advance past the quarterfinals in six appearances. But, with her booming groundstrokes and improved mobility, she's now thriving on the grass.
"I've gotten a little more used to it," she said. "Last year was just amazing. I didn't think I could do it. This year I know I can do it."
Venus and Serena Williams won their doubles semifinals Friday, beating Natasha Zvereva and Anna Kournikova 6-3, 7-6 (4). The Williams sisters will return to Centre Court Sunday for the final. The sisters will be seeking their third Grand Slam doubles title with previous victories last year in the U.S. Open and French.
Serena also won the 1998 Wimbledon and U.S. Open mixed doubles titles with Max Mirnyi. Venus won the Australian and French Open in the same year playing with Justin Gimelstob.
Venus, Davenport and Monica Seles are guaranteed spots on the U.S. Olympic team. Coach Billie Jean King can select one more player, and it likely will be Serena Williams.
"We're the best doubles team America has," Venus said. "It would be a good pick."
The sisters entered the Wimbledon doubles as a wild card and were seeded No. 8.