WIMBLEDON, England -- Andre Agassi's precious white outfit was wrinkled, and his right thigh was wrapped. He was hurt but still brawling on a hot summer evening, an All-American quarterfinal against David Wheaton turning into a Centre Court rumble.
Agassi was two points from a Wimbledon victory yesterday that would have silenced his critics, proving once and for all that underneath the Las Vegas glitz and the shoulder-length bleached-blond hair beats the heart of a tennis champion.
And then . . . Agassi lost the fourth set. And then, he lost the match, 6-2, 0-6, 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2.
It was another horrible finish for the man who would be king of tennis.
"I still had a chance to win it, and I still could have won as opposed to lose if I wasn't injured," Agassi said. "I missed out on a few chances, but if it's not a matter of life and death, I see no reason to live and die by it."
The Agassi-Wheaton showdown closed an extraordinary session of tennis, setting up the most important final four in the sport. Today on Centre Court, it will be Wheaton against three-time champion Boris Becker of Germany and defending champion Stefan Edberg of Sweden against Michael Stich of Germany.
Becker held a running commentary with his racket but outlastedGuy Forget of France, 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-3), 6-2, 7-6 (9-7). Edberg thrashed base-liner Thierry Champion of France, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5. Stich ousted French Open champion Jim Courier, 6-3, 7-6 (7-2), 6-2.
Agassi's first trip to Wimbledon since 1987 was the dominant story of the men's championships. He showed up dressed in white and played ferocious tennis for four rounds.
But yesterday, he felt his right thigh muscle tear in the first game against Wheaton, and then thought long and hard about quitting the match. Three times in the first nine games, a trainer sprayed a painkilleron Agassi's thigh, and then, came out with a protective wrap.
"Maybe if it had been any other time I would have felt like I couldn't have gone on, but that wasn't the case," Agassi said.
He played and battered Wheaton for two sets. Then, on the verge of breaking Wheaton down, Agassi collapsed.
"I knew toward the end of the fourth set, if I couldn't get it there, I couldn't win," Agassi said.
Give Wheaton, credit, though.
Down, 2-4, 0-40, in the fourth set, Wheaton slammed two aces and two service winners and closed the game on a short rally.
"I was pretty much writing the match off at that point," said Wheaton, 22, of Lake Minnetonka, Minn. "I just don't know how that happened. To pull up five big serves in a row comes from way down deep. It takes Wimbledon for that to happen."
Still, Wheaton needed help to get back in the match. Agassi, serving at 6-5, 30-all, two points away from meeting Becker, double-faulted, gave away the game, and then got blown out in the tie-breaker.
The final set was all Wheaton, a powerful serve-and-volley specialist wearing a Stars and Stripes headband, celebrating the Fourth of July and his third anniversary in professional tennis.
"I started wearing the headband during the whole Gulf conflict," Wheaton said. "I got some fan mail, and the thing kind of stuck. I'm an American, and I like it."
Wheaton is the newest in the growing number of American tennis stars. While Agassi, Courier, Pete Sampras and Michael Chang were out on the tour, Wheaton was spending a year honing his skills at Stanford. He was sidetracked by nerve damage in his left hand after he roller skated to a friend's dorm room and leaned heavily on a glass door. For three months, he was unable to hit his trademark two-fisted backhands.
"I still don't have any feeling in half of my hand," said Wheaton, a right-hander. "It was a shock realizing you're not invincible, that things can change quickly."
Wheaton has progressed steadily on tour. He was a quarterfinalist at the 1990 U.S. Open and reached the finals of the 1991 Lipton tournament. Ranked 20th in the world, Wheaton toppled Ivan Lendl in the third round of Wimbledon.
"This was a satisfying win, without a doubt, because I had to figure a way out of it," Wheaton said. "I was thinking I was in an almost hopeless situation. Somehow, I figured out a way to win."
Next up for Wheaton is Becker. Three times in three days Becker has fought to remain in the tournament. Yesterday, he survived a scraped knee and needed a double fault on match point to beat Forget. Today, he meets the hottest server in the tournament.
"I'm not overwhelmed by this," Wheaton said. "I've played all of these guys before. I consider myself one of the better grass-court players in the world. It's not an intimidating thing."
Career head-to-head records for the men's semifinalists at Wimbledon (seedings in parentheses):
M= Stefan Edberg (1), Sweden, vs. Michael Stich (6), Germany (Edberg leads, 2-1) 1991 -- Hamburg, Clay, QF, Stich, 6-2, 7-6.
-- Japan Open, Hard, QF, Edberg, 7-6, 6-3.
1991 -- Key Biscayne, Hard, 4th, Edberg, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4.
Boris Becker (2), Germany, vs. David Wheaton, Deephaven, Minn.
(Becker leads, 2-0) 1989 -- Philadelphia Indoors, R32, Becker, 6-1, 6-4.
-- Queens Club, Grass, QF, Becker, 6-3, 6-3.