WASHINGTON -- He didn't drop a set last year en route to the Legg Mason Tennis Classic title. Now, after a relatively easy road into the quarterfinals, Stefan Edberg has had to battle all kinds of elements to get back into the final.
Playing with a sore shoulder and fatigued from his three-set, rain-delayed comeback win late Friday night, Edberg yesterday held off Australian Patrick Rafter, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, to advance to his second consecutive Classic final.
The second seed will face top-ranked Andre Agassi today at 2 p.m. Agassi knocked off fourth seed Todd Martin, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5). This marks the first time the top two seeds have met in the final of this tournament since 1989's Tim Mayotte-Brad Gilbert final. Top seed Mayotte won.
Picking up his game at the most opportune moments, Edberg, 29, collapsed in relief at the end of his two-hour, 12-minute match.
The 16th-ranked Swede, who was extremely tired from the high humidity that made the on-court temperature feel like 102 degrees, needed six match points to close it out.
"I was just trying to survive out there," Edberg said. "It feels like you are in an oven. It was pretty hot today. I had a fairly tough match yesterday. The humidity is really the killer."
The question heading into yesterday's semifinal was if Edberg would have enough left in him to beat the up-and-coming, 64th-ranked Rafter.
The defending champ had been extended to a third-set tiebreaker by Cristiano Caratti and a four-hour rain delay the night before. Edberg prevailed, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (7-1), with the match ending close to 11 p.m.
Rafter noticed Edberg's diminishing strength.
"I got tired at the end of the first set," Rafter said. "When I got into the third, I had no problem at all, whereas he started to suffer. He was getting tired but he knew what he had to do to win."
With an improving sore shoulder that has been bothering him since Wimbledon, Edberg started off the first set strong, breaking Rafter for a 4-2 lead on a crosscourt, backhand return winner.
Edberg's backhand -- one of the most beautiful strokes in tennis and his strongest ground stroke -- was deadly. He passed Rafter almost at will throughout the match.
"I was a little bit surprised [that Rafter went to his backhand]," Edberg said. "My backhand is the stronger side. That's nice when they hit it to that side."
Rafter eventually broke back to even things at 5-5 but went on to lose the set because of Edberg's deft volleying and solid baseline play.
Throughout the second set, Edberg served himself out of repeated break point threats. But late in the second set, Edberg uncharacteristically stayed back on his serve, in part due to his shoulder.
"I tried to mix it up a little bit . . . . to stay back and come in," Edberg said. "The shoulder doesn't help it. That's what I've been doing this week, staying back quite a bit."
Rafter took the second set after Edberg missed a couple of volleys in a deuce game serving at 5-6.
Edberg opened a 4-0 lead in the final set but it took a great deal out of him. Edberg's second break of the set took eight deuces.
With Rafter serving at 1-5, he fought off the first match point at 30- 40. After holding, he fought off five more on Edberg's serve.
"He gave me many opportunities," Rafter said. "He's been doing that. That's why he's not the player he used to be. But he came up with some amazing shots just like when he was playing at his best."
Edberg will have to stop a hot Agassi to win the $90,000 first-place prize. Since his third-round loss at Washington last year, Agassi is 78-11. He leads Edberg, 4-3, in head-to-head meetings. The last time they met was in 1994, when Edberg lost in straight sets.
Agassi had problems with Martin, who at 6 feet 6 is the tallest player on the ATP Tour. Martin aced Agassi 16 times.
"He hit unreturnable serves," Agassi said. "I felt great about the fact that I was even getting opportunities with the way he was serving. He kept coming up with bigger and bigger serves."
Agassi's break in the third game was the difference in the first set.
In the second, Martin was up 3-2, 4-3, and 6-5 before Agassi held at love to send it to a breaker.
They split the first six points, then Agassi won three of the next five to wrap up the match.
"To get through a match like this is important," Agassi said. "This is a tournament-winning kind of match. . . . To get through it gives me a lot of confidence."
Agassi said he expects a tough match from Edberg.
"I'm definitely going to have to be returning well and hitting targets. . . . passing really well. Hopefully, I can make him work hard enough on his serve to get the breaks that I need."
Stefan Edberg (2), Sweden, def. Patrick Rafter (13), Australia, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2.
RF Andre Agassi (1), Las Vegas, def. Todd Martin (4), 6-4, 7-6 (7-5).
Petr Korda and Cyril Suk, Czech Republic (5), def. Patrick McEnroe, Oyster Bay, N.Y., and Richey Reneberg, Minneapolis (3), 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3.
Olivier Delaitre, France, and Jeff Tarango, Manhattan Beach, Calif., (6), def. Byron Black, Zimbabwe, and Jason Stark, Seattle (2), 3-6, 7-5, 6-2.