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Sampras seeking a record-tying 7th title

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WIMBLEDON, England — The time is right, the place is perfect, and the stars may even be lined up for Pete Sampras to claim the Grand Slam record at last — if he can squeeze a little more mileage out of his bum leg.

In his six championship runs at Wimbledon, Sampras never took a stranger trip to the final than he did the past two weeks. It was the toughest of times and the easiest, with daily treatments, no practices, no warmups and no seeded players to worry about right through the semifinals.

Sampras got a spritz of numbing medication on the swollen tendon above his left ankle in mid-match Friday, then whacked running forehands with ridiculous ease in a 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-4 victory over Vladimir Voltchkov, a qualifier ranked No. 247.

That's how it's been for Sampras the entire fortnight. One moment he's the Tin Man, stiff and creaky and mumbling about how sore he is, the next he gets all oiled up and dances around the court, knocking down everyone in sight.

"As long as I have my right arm, on grass I'm still a threat," said Sampras, who is seeking to match the Wimbledon record of seven men's titles set by William Renshaw in the 1880s — an era when the defending champion automatically advanced to the final.

If he can win here and also pass Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam titles, Sampras will feel rather blessed. He's 28 years old, still in his prime, and ready to grab the record that eluded him in his past three Grand Slam attempts.

"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.

"Even getting to the final has been one of my best efforts. I just know this is my last match. Mentally, that feels good that I don't have to come back and play again. You just let it all hang out, just go out there and not think about it. The adrenaline, the occasion, can really get you through a lot of tough situations on the court. Sunday I'm sure that will be the case."

The man across the net in the final, though, isn't likely to be a pushover like Sampras' six previous victims this tournament.

Patrick Rafter, the two-time U.S. Open champion, put on a dazzling acrobatic show as he served-and-volleyed his way past Andre Agassi, 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, to reach his first Wimbledon final.

It was perhaps the finest men's semifinal of the past two decades, Rafter and Agassi both on their games and coming up with brilliant shots. Rafter charged relentlessly and hurled himself through the air after balls and Agassi performed like the consummate counterpuncher. In the end, it came down to two points that Agassi let slip away — a double-fault and forehand error that gave Rafter a break to 4-2 in the final set.

Rafter then ran his ace total to 18 in the next two service games as he closed out the match and became the first Australian since Pat Cash in 1987 to reach the Wimbledon final.

"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.

Agassi hadn't had his serve broken in his last three matches, and hadn't lost serve to Rafter in their previous two Wimbledon encounters. But Rafter broke him five times in this match.

Agassi said he missed too many first serves, allowing Rafter to "zone in" on his second serves.