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A place in history awaits Sampras

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WIMBLEDON, England — Willie Renshaw may have finally met his match.

The Englishman revolutionized lawn tennis in the 1880s and was the most dominant men's champion in Wimbledon history — until now. Pete Sampras can equal Renshaw's record of seven titles by beating Australian Patrick Rafter in Sunday's final.

Sampras will also try for his 13th Grand Slam title, which would break the men's record he shares with Roy Emerson.

For one so young, the 28-year-old Sampras has an uncommon appreciation of tennis history, and he's well aware of his chance to make it.

"I'm not looking at Sunday as pressure," he said. "I'm looking at it as an opportunity."

Renshaw won his first Wimbledon title in 1881, three years after a rule change to permit overhand serves. In contrast to the style of play common at the time, he served hard and volleyed aggressively — like Sampras more than a century later. Renshaw repeated as champion the next five years and following a bout with tennis elbow won a seventh title in 1889.

But in that era the defending champion automatically advanced to the final, and Renshaw's record at the All England Club was just 22-3. Sampras has to slog through seven rounds every year, and his eight-year record at Wimbledon is 52-1.

"You don't want to play Pete at any time," Rafter said, "but especially not at Wimbledon."

When the 12th-seeded Rafter upset No. 2 Andre Agassi in a thrilling five-setter Friday, his parents scrambled to catch a flight from Australia for his first Wimbledon final. Also sure to be rooting for Rafter will be fellow Aussie Emerson, who faces the prospect of having his Grand Slam record surpassed by Sampras.

"I wouldn't say I was happy about it," said Emerson, 63. "But I will admit that if he does it, it's a terrific effort."

Emerson counts Wimbledon championships in 1964-65 among his 12 major titles. Sampras tied the record by winning Wimbledon last year.

"He's a great champion, and records are there to be broken," Emerson said. "You can't hold them forever."

Limping at times, the top-seeded Sampras is back in the final despite tendinitis above his left ankle. The injury prevented him from practicing for most of the tournament, but he benefited from an easy draw and breezed past qualifier Vladimir Voltchkov in the semifinals.

Sampras has complained that some players believe he exaggerated the severity of his injury. Emerson didn't address the subject, but it's interesting that he once explained the Australian code of sportsmanship this way: "You should never complain about an injury. We believe that if you play, then you aren't injured, and that's that."

The 12th-seeded Rafter has had health concerns of his own. The two-time U.S. Open champion is surprised to be playing for another Grand Slam title only nine months after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder.

"It's been a long road back," he said. "That's the most satisfying part about it. It has been probably a big shock. But I don't want to think about it right now. I want to go ahead with the job and put in my best on Sunday."

Sampras and Rafter both serve and volley, which means they'll pressure the return. The likely result will be few rallies and a match that boils down to a few pivotal points, which is when Sampras thrives.

"I'm not going out on a limb to say I think Pete's going to win," Agassi said.

In Wimbledon finals Sampras is 6-0, beating Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Cedric Pioline and Goran Ivanisevic twice. Now he confronts Rafter — and history.

"My legacy is really the last thing on my mind Sunday," Sampras said. "When you're competing, you're kind of on the inside, not looking on the outside. I'm sure two weeks from now, a month from now, 10 years from now, I can appreciate my career much more."