When Andre Agassi hit bottom in 1997, falling to No. 141 in the rankings, he knew he still had some good tennis left in his racket. But as he thrashed his way through tiny challenger tournaments in the sweltering heat of places such as Las Vegas and Burbank, Calif., even he never dreamed of this.
On Sunday, Agassi will play Pete Sampras for the Wimbledon title, an all-American final on the Fourth of July. Agassi has a tidal wave of momentum, the French Open title he won last month seemingly dangling from the back pocket of his baggy white shorts. Win or lose, he will overtake Sampras to claim No. 1 when the rankings come out Monday. Not bad for a 29-year-old has-been.
"I don't advise it to anybody, dropping to number  in the world. It's a long way back," said Agassi, who last was No. 1 in 1996. "It certainly reflects a lot of hard work, but I have to say, I'm far from satisfied. I feel like I've come here to win, not just to accomplish a little something."
Agassi guaranteed himself the No. 1 ranking today with a seamless 7-5, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 semifinal win over Patrick Rafter, who played so well himself it was hard to believe the match ended in straight sets.
Sampras, 27, had a harder time with British favorite Tim Henman, so his come-from-behind 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 win was a particularly gut-wrenching experience for the home crowd. But while the throng of fans left the All England club today with heavy hearts and red smudges where the words "Go Tim" had been painted on several faces, the result set up a dream American matchup between rivals who have battled since childhood.
It also set up a slice of history, no matter which way the match falls. If Agassi wins, he will earn his second Wimbledon title and become the first man to claim the French Open and Wimbledon titles in the same year since Bjorn Borg in 1980. If Sampras wins, he will earn his sixth Wimbledon title and his 12th Grand Slam crown, matching the Slam record held by Roy Emerson.
"I'm sure getting ready to go out and step on the court, it's going to be an unbelievable atmosphere," said Sampras, who last played Agassi in a Grand Slam final when he won the U.S. Open in 1995. "There's history with him and I through the years, and we've been through a lot of tennis together. We're obviously going to be a little nervous in the beginning, but hopefully we'll settle down and play some good tennis."
For a while today, it looked as if Sampras might not make it to Sunday's party. He looked ragged and shaken in the first set against Henman, his shoulders slumping as much as his game. Sampras slowly began to regain his form after a trainer briefly treated him for a sore groin, but it wasn't until Henman double-faulted to hand Sampras the second set that Sampras really appeared rejuvenated.
He took control of the third set, and while Henman had an opening in the fourth, Sampras maintained his advantage and closed out the match before the situation could became truly competitive. Sampras is 6-0 against Henman, a good friend with whom he often plays golf.
"I feel like I made the best possible start, but it was a question of just trying to make a second push in the second set, and I couldn't do that today," said Henman, who also lost to Sampras in the semifinals here last year.
Rafter played better than Henman but got even less satisfaction, as Agassi often returned his nasty kick serve with as much ease as a floating lob. As the No. 2 player, Rafter also would have moved to No. 1 Monday if he had advanced to the final, but he will have to wait until the July 16 Davis Cup matchup between Australia and the United States to get a chance at Sampras.
Noting that Agassi was "just too good and too strong," Rafter predicted fireworks for the Sampras-Agassi match. Agassi didn't disagree.
"You get to see contrasts in play, contrasts in personality and two guys who have basically grown up together," Agassi said. "We're two guys who have managed to bring out the best in each other's game, and now the stage is set. It's time to go out there and not miss our cue."
CAPTION: In 1996, Andre Agassi was ranked No. 1 in the world. In 1997, he fell to No. 141. Now he's set to return to the top.
CAPTION: After losing first set, Pete Sampras reaches for a little extra to dispatch Tim Henman in four sets in men's semifinal.