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Rafter vs Agassi: The forgotten trilogy

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Roar Rookie
6th May, 2020
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With world sport on indefinite hiatus, the time is upon us to revisit classic moments.

Leo Barry’s Mark. Zab Judah’s noodle-legged dance after Kostya Tszyu zapped him on the chin with a deadly right hand. Patty Mills dropping 17 to clinch the 2014 NBA finals.

These moments tell of championships, career-defining victories and fierce rivalries.

But what of the matches that do not directly result in a championship? What of the rivalries that, on paper, may seem lopsided, but produced incredible moments all the same?

One such rivalry occurred at the turn of the millennium, when Andre Agassi and Patrick Rafter delivered tennis fans a trilogy to rival The Godfather. It took place at near-precise intervals over a calendar year, each match at the semi-final stages of a Grand Slam tournament, and each one going the distance.

The combatants

Andre Agassi always seemed destined for greatness. A child prodigy hailing from Las Vegas, he trained at the illustrious Bollettieri Academy. With his attacking baseline game, he was the archetype of the modern player and, together with his fitness trainer Gil Reyes, had once again raised the bar and redefined what constituted elite athleticism in tennis.

By the time Wimbledon 2000 rolled around, he had permanently dispensed with his former reputation. Long gone was the rebellious, wild-haired youth, touted for greatness but maligned for underachieving. In his place was a steely-eyed veteran who’d won three of the last five Grand Slams and was rewriting his Hall of Fame induction credentials before our eyes.

Pat Rafter, on the other hand, was an exponent of the classic serve-and-volley game. Coached by the prolific Tony Roche, his service motion was built with a forward pounce that saw him bearing down on the service box as soon as his opponent got racquet to ball. For those opponents, what he achieved with his first volley was nothing less than the stuff of nightmares.

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He, like Agassi, was on the comeback trail. Turning pro in 1991, many thought he was building little more than a journeyman’s resume until ‘97, when he won only the second title of his career, defeating Greg Rusedski on Arthur Ashe Stadium. In 1998, he would defend his US Open crown en route to an impressive haul of six ATP titles.

In 1999, he would briefly hold the world no.1 ranking before being forced to withdraw from the tour for extensive surgery and rehabilitation on his rotator cuff.

The clash of styles made it interesting, their career-paths made it exciting, the results were must-see viewing.

2000 Wimbledon Championships, semi-final

After spending 1998 fighting his way back up the rankings, Agassi announced his return to the elite in 1999 winning both Roland Garros and the US Open. He backed up these achievements by winning the Australian Open to begin the 2000 season, beating Pete Sampras and Yevgeny Kafelnikov along the way. He wasn’t just back. He was better than ever.

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Rafter spent the early part of the year undergoing rehabilitation. He was unable to play the Aussie summer but returned ahead of the Sunshine Double and gradually rediscovered his form. Things finally came together in his last event before Wimbledon as he won the title in Hertogenbosch.

Agassi’s path to the Wimbledon semis was arguably more dangerous than Rafter’s, negotiating his way past the likes of Todd Martin and big-hitters in Taylor Dent and Mark Philippoussis. Rafter dropped just one set to Tomas Johansson on the way to the last four, extending his grass court winning streak to ten.

Rafter would win a gritty first set 7-5 and take an early lead in the second, securing a service break to go up 2-0. But nothing is guaranteed when you’re in there with the greatest returner in the sport. Agassi wasted no time in breaking back, levelling affairs at 2-2. At 4-4, a couple of loose points from Rafter gave Agassi a chance to break and serve for the set. He did just that, promptly closing it out 6-4.

A tense third set saw Rafter create an opportunity to serve it out at 5-3, but Agassi broke back and kept it alive. At 5-6, with the set on the line, Agassi fell behind 15-40 courtesy of two double faults and an error

Double set point down, Agassi stretched Rafter wide into the deuce court with a forehand and rushed the net. A daring play, and if Rafter wanted to clinch the third, his shot would need to be great.

It was. On the full run, he blasted a forehand pass crosscourt. 7-5 Rafter.

Andre wasted no time in shaking off the disappointment of losing the third set. Thanks to some inspired passes and returns, he broke Rafter in the opening game of the fourth.

But consolidating the service break would not be a given. After streaking out to a 40-0 lead, Agassi ended up in the throes of a hellish ten-minute service game. He showed no compunctions with approaching the net, winning points with drop shots and volleys, as Rafter proved he was more than willing to trade thundering groundstrokes with his celebrated foe. Finally, after a game comprising seven deuces and five break points, Agassi let out a muffled “come on!” as Rafter pushed a forehand long. 2-0 Agassi.

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From here, Agassi showed his mettle as he protected the service break throughout the remainder of the set, and when he clinched it with a second serve ace, the crowd roared. 6-4 Agassi, and we were down to a fifth.

The fifth set stayed on serve through the first five games, neither man giving any quarter. The level of tennis on display was utterly supernatural and one could only wonder who would blink first.

It would be Agassi. Serving at 2-3 and 30-all, he handed a Rafter break point with a disastrous double fault. It was akin to a drop of blood in the water and Rafter seized it with aggression before winning his following service game to love.

It was an imperious display from the serve and volley stylist and, in precisely three minutes, it had gone from anyone’s match to a commanding 5-2 lead for Rafter.

Agassi would hold serve comfortably and the onus fell on Rafter to serve it out. He would do so without dropping a point. Rafter had come through an absolute thriller and would contest the Wimbledon final.

Rafter def. Agassi 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3

The crowd stood as the players exchanged warm words at the net. They had witnessed something special on centre court that day. John McEnroe later described the match as the best he’d ever seen at Wimbledon.

Rafter faced Sampras in the final. He would win the first set and lead 4-1 in the second set tiebreaker, but would ultimately succumb to the Wimbledon king in four. It was Sampras’ seventh and final Wimbledon title.

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Patrick Rafter of Australia shakes hands with Andre Agassi

(Credit: Clive Brunskill/ALLSPORT)

2001 Australian Open, semi-final

Both men had varying fortunes since their meeting at Wimbledon. Each was eliminated in the early stages of the US Open (Rafter falling in the first round, Agassi in the second) and despite the odd deep run, neither man had won a tournament.

But come January 2001 there was no doubting who ruled the rebound ace courts of Melbourne Park. Agassi entered the Australian Open as the defending champion, a heavy favourite with odds-makers and a darling of the Aussie fans.

Weeks earlier, Rafter had contested the Davis Cup final alongside Lleyton Hewitt, facing Spain. It was played on clay, in Barcelona, in front of a crowd that sounded like it had been shipped in from Camp Nou. Rafter faced clay phenom (and eventual Roland Garros champion) Juan Carlos Ferrero and, despite winning the first set, was sadly forced to default the match in the fourth due to severe cramping.

He had hinted heavily at retirement since.

Agassi was there to defend his title. Rafter, in what would likely be his last season, had the weight of a nation on his shoulders.

When the semi-finals came around, most assumed (with utmost respect to Sebastien Grosjean and Arnaud Clement) the winner of Pat and Andre’s match would go on to win the championship.

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They met in a packed Rod Laver Arena. Conditions were torrid. The heat was so intense Agassi changed his shirt after a mere seven games of play. But he was in vintage form and toughed out the first set 7-5, committing only three unforced errors along the way.

The crowd came alive as Rafter broke early in the second, and when he broke again to win the set 6-2, they erupted.

It was a gruelling affair and despite the nip-and-tuck nature of the match, there was a noticeable lack of positive body language on Rafter’s part. He shuffled between points, barely showing any emotion, even when his play conjured it en masse among those in attendance.

The fight wore on and in the third, they once again found themselves at a 5-5 deadlock.

Rafter lifted the crowd by putting three consecutive aces past Agassi. When he committed a first-serve fault on the next point, a murmur of laughter spread through the arena. Rafter would win the game handily, but they knew they’d been on the cusp of the impossible: four straight aces against Agassi.

Virtuosity is one thing. Miracles are another.

Agassi would then force a tiebreak winning his service to love, hitting a forehand winner that Rafter didn’t even run for.

Rafter poured his heart and soul into the tiebreaker and won it 7-5. He barely celebrated. He was two-sets-to-one up but looked dejected and worn down, perspiring heavily in the humid conditions.

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The crowd stood on its feet, daring to believe. The Davis Cup was still fresh in Australian memories, but they weren’t about to give up on their man. As the Aussie fans fought to prop him up, the sentiment around Rod Laver Arena was clear: “Hang in there, Pat!”

“Hang in there” might have been a credible tactic if he was facing a journeyman overwhelmed by the occasion, or a player with a wild temper who might defeat himself.

Or perhaps anyone but Andre Agassi, who was as likely to gift you a point as pigs were to fly.

There was little Rafter could do as the ever-fit Agassi crushed groundstrokes down on him. But, just as the crowd would not give up on their ailing hero, Rafter would not do his home crowd the disservice of defaulting the match.

Rafter fought valiantly, but Agassi was simply unstoppable, taking the final two sets by decisive scores of 6-2 and 6-3.

Agassi def. Rafter 7-5, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-3

Pat Rafter (left) of Australia congratulates semi-final winner Andre Agassi

Credit: Clive Brunskill /Allsport

Although he’d beaten their hometown hero, none in Rod Laver Arena begrudged Agassi. He was a deserved winner and, as predicted, went on to win his seventh Grand Slam title routing Arnaud Clement in the final 6-4 6-2 6-2.

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2001 Wimbledon Championships, semi-final

It seemed inevitable that these two warriors would meet in the Wimbledon semi-finals once again, and neither man disappointed in booking a spot in their hotly anticipated decider.

Perhaps one could argue that it did not have the dazzling quality of their 2000 encounter. But what it lacked in polish it more than made up for in drama. Their prior meetings had been defined by sets that swung by a point or two. This was a see-sawing affair. Rafter and Agassi took turns for the opening four sets, each one with a decisive score, 2-6 6-3 3-6 6-2.

Agassi would gain the early ascendancy in the decider, breaking serve and leading 2-0. Rafter seemed out of sorts as Agassi mounted a complete assault, and before long he was staring down the barrel of 0-2 and 15-40.

A second break of serve here would dash any hopes of another crack at a Wimbledon title. It was do or die.

Rafter botched his first serve well wide and well long. The second plopped into the centre of the service box and Agassi walloped it cross court. Rafter, on the full stretch, somehow reached it but floated it high and slow towards mid-court, allowing Agassi to skip around his forehand and load up a passing shot from hell.

Rafter was all but flat-footed at the net as Agassi unleashed an absolute screamer. Rafter, on pure instinct, reflex or some other sorcery, slid to his left, stuck his racquet in front of him and blocked it back into the open court.

This was no fare for the faint-hearted.

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Rafter ultimately prolonged his fate with a service hold, but Agassi was still up a break and before long he was serving for the match at 5-4.

For a player who is known for his aggression, Rafter outdid himself. A look at a second serve saw Rafter chip and charge. Agassi fired a jamming backhand into his body, which Rafter stabbed straight back into Agassi’s backhand corner. Andre reached it, but sent it wide. 0-15.

Again, Rafter would face a second serve, and again he would chip it at the Agassi backhand before charging into the forecourt. This time Agassi was ready, slotting the passing shot away comfortably. 15-15.

Agassi found a welcome first serve, ripping a 120mph bomb down the tee that ricocheted off the Rafter backhand. 30-15. He was now two points away.

Once again, the Agassi first serve would go missing, and this time Rafter would return with a deep backhand slice but elect to stay back; a dangerous prospect when facing the game’s best baseliner.

Amazingly, Rafter was dictating, keeping his man off-balance with a mixture of slice backhands and whipping cross-court forehands. When he got the right shot, Rafter flattened out his backhand and drove it down the deuce court line. A fourteen-shot rally to Rafter. 30-30, and tensions rose.

Agassi would miss his first serve by millimetres. It had all but gone AWOL. Now he faced the inglorious proposition of floating another second serve over to Rafter at 30-30.

His delivery kicked high into Rafter’s backhand, who met it a step within the baseline and sliced it deep, forcing Agassi to backpedal. He reached the ball but sent it looping wide. Rafter calmly made his way back to the baseline with the slightest of fist pumps. 30-40, break point Rafter.

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Finally, Agassi would find another first serve, but it proved too little, too late. Rafter would again brave the trenches of a baseline rally with Agassi, and would again come out victorious as he – after pulling Agassi out wide with a backhand – snuck deftly into the net and knifed a forehand put-away into miles of open court.

The noise was deafening. Rafter had broken. It was 5-5 and the match had been turned on its head.

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Each man would hold his next serve relatively comfortably. At 6-6, Rafter looked to be cruising as he served and sliced his way to 40-0.

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Agassi then crushed four straight service returns to bring up break point.

One sliding serve and an exquisite drop volley returned it to deuce.

Moments later, Agassi crushed another service return which would have brought up another break point had it not landed agonisingly wide. There couldn’t have been more than a blade of grass or two in it. Amid the ensuing response from the crowd, a line judge approached the umpire’s chair. As Rafter prepared to serve, umpire Mike Morrisey (with whom Agassi had clashed in the fourth set) announced a warning for Agassi due to audible obscenity.

A groan arose from the crowd. Clearly, they thought a little tension release in the heat of battle was a forgivable offense, especially given Agassi’s usual impeccable behaviour. But alas, this is Wimbledon. Proper etiquette must be observed.

Rafter quickly put the game away and a frustrated Agassi was made to serve for his tournament life, trailing 6-7. It was a sudden-death scenario and three uncharacteristic errors handed Rafter three match points. Agassi saved two with typically brilliant play. At 30-40, Agassi ripped a backhand cross-court in response to a chipped service return and stormed into the net.

Rafter slightly mis-hit his attempt at a backhand passing shot, causing it to loop high. Not quite a lob, but well outside of Agassi’s range. There was little Andre could do but turn and watch it plop inside the line.

Rafter def. Agassi 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 8-6

Pleasantries were exchanged at the net, and the last tennis ball in Agassi’s pocket may have veered the way of the linesperson who reported his audible obscenity. Purely by accident, of course.

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In the final, Rafter would fall 7-9 in the fifth set to Croatia’s Goran Ivanisevic.

Patrick Rafter would indeed retire from professional tennis after the 2001 season having won ten career titles – including two grand slams – contested two Wimbledon finals and having a brief stint at world no 1.

Agassi would play on until 2006, winning another Australian open – bringing his grand slam count to eight – and contesting two more US Open finals against Sampras and Roger Federer.

Given the ascendancy of the baseline game, we may never see a rivalry like this again. Perhaps just as great as the matches themselves was the respect they held for one another. Early in the second set of their 2000 Wimbledon meeting, Agassi branded Rafter in the back with an overhead. A bashful apology from Agassi and a forgiving laugh from Rafter were enough to clear the air.

A warm reminder of the spirit in which their matches, however competitive, were played.

These days we have unmitigated access to almost any classic sporting moment we’d care to watch, and as Aussie fans, we’re spoiled for choice. But when you’re boning up on your tennis history, make sure you don’t skip this lesson, when two legends etched one of the most exciting chapters the sport has ever seen.