In one of the most memorable Wimbledon semifinals ever, Australia’s Pat Rafter took on American Andre Agassi. This match had all the makings of a classic before a ball was even struck, evident in the contrasting styles used by both players. Agassi, who played primarily from the baseline and was undoubtedly the best returner in the game, was the number 2 seed.
Alternatively, Rafter was known for his aggressive style of play; continually attacking the net and ending points with his near-flawless volleying ability. Rafter’s game was tailor-made for the grass courts of Wimbledon, but he’d have to get past the man who’d dismissed him the previous year.
Agassi had met Rafter on ten different occasions, holding a 7-3 lead over the lanky Australian. The two had met in the semifinal at Wimbledon 12 months before this encounter, with Agassi emerging victorious 7-5 7-6(5) 6-2. Agassi held a 2-0 lead on the grass and was the higher seed.
Rafter’s ranking had fallen to world number 52 due to him having surgery after the 1999 US Open, necessitated by a severe case of right shoulder tendinitis. His presence at this stage of the tournament was a little surprising, as his game had lost some of its bite.
He, however, had recovered his form, defeating unseeded German Alexander Popp 6-3 6-2 7-6(1) in the quarterfinals, whereas Agassi had to overcome 10th seed Mark Philippoussis 7-6(4) 6-3 6-4 in his quarterfinal match.
The first set began with each player holding serve efficiently, although Agassi did earn the first breakpoint in the fifth game. This came off a beautiful backhand return passing shot, but that opportunity was quickly erased by a huge Rafter serve. Both men played at a high level, with Agassi displaying his inimitable groundstrokes and passing shots, while Rafter showed off his exceptional volleying ability. However, Agassi was the first to blink and double fault at 15-30 in the 11th game, giving Rafter two set points. He then sent a backhand long, and Rafter claimed the first set 7-5 in 42 minutes.
Rafter earned a breakpoint in Agassi’s opening service game in the second set and looked to have momentum on his side. He then borrowed a page from the American’s playbook and hit a forehand return winner for the break and grab a 2-0 lead. Not to be outdone, Agassi responded by hitting multiple return winners to earn a breakpoint in Rafter’s subsequent service game. He finally broke the Australian after hitting an exquisite defensive lob, and the match was back on serve!
Despite Agassi’s attempts to move Rafter around the court and prevent him from attacking the net, Rafter still earned two break points at 4-3 by using a slow backhand slice. This forced Agassi to attack the net and volley, a task which he would rather have to avoid.
He changed tactics by attacking the Rafter forehand, eventually breaking it down and producing errors. He was able to hold, thanks also to a lucky net cord. Rafter began having difficulty with his serve, and a double fault gave Agassi breakpoints. The American finally got his second break with a spectacular backhand return winner down the line; giving him a 5-4 lead. Agassi then closed out the second set with an ace in 39 minutes.
The third set could have gone either way, as momentum kept shifting between both competitors. Agassi seemed to be in control at one point, and he acquired a breakpoint at 2-2. Rafter, however, did not refrain from attacking the net, and he continued to employ his serve and volley tactic, which enabled him to hold.
Agassi then played some very loose points – probably his worst game of the match. He was broken to love, allowing Rafter to serve for the set at 5-3. Nonetheless, Agassi’s unparalleled return game came to the fore, and he hit some exceptional return winners to break back and prolong the set. He then committed two consecutive double faults when serving at 5-6, before Rafter claimed the set 7-5, in 42 minutes, with a forehand passing shot.
Agassi broke early in the fourth set, thanks again to some spectacular return of serves. One would think that Rafter would have developed a winning strategy against this, as he continually attacked and pressured the former Wimbledon champion. Yet, it was to no avail, as Agassi was able to break and held his own service game despite facing five break points at stages throughout. Agassi was able to maintain this advantage throughout the set and ended up winning the fourth 6-4 in 41 minutes.
It was only appropriate for this to go to a fifth set, and the crowd was loving every minute of it. It was a tense affair, but Rafter was able to get 80% of his first serves in, coming in behind almost every shot. He finally got the break in the sixth game, following some aggressive groundstrokes and acrobatic volleys. At five games to 3 Rafter served for the match, using the serve and volley approach for every point, and finally sealed the victory with the scoreline of 7-5 4-6 7-5 4-6 6-3 in 3 hours and 17 minutes.
Rafter would then face Pete Sampras in the final, who had defeated Belarusian qualifier Vladimir Voltchkov in his semifinal. Sampras was gunning for a then record-breaking seventh Wimbledon title overall and would go on to beat Rafter 6-7(10) 7-6(5) 6-4 6-2.
In taking down the best returner in the game, Rafter had to remain undaunted, regardless of the number of times he was passed at the net. His serve and volley strategy proved efficient, doubtlessly because he had a high enough first serve percentage ratio.
When returning, he employed the chip and charge on second serves, and tried to draw Agassi to the net using a short backhand slice. Agassi was not overly competent at the net and therefore attempted to hit winners off of slow balls with no pace, which created a lot of unforced errors. In this matchup of pure offence versus incredible defence, the aggressive Australian finally had his day.