WIMBLEDON, England - Beyond the looks, the legs and the ever-changing hairstyles, Patrick Rafter has always set himself apart in men's tennis by his simple humanity.
He's the champ who admits to nerves, the star hobbled by injuries, the veteran publicly pondering retirement.
So there was a bit of anticipation yesterday when Rafter showed up at Centre Court on a warm, humid day, modeling a buzz cut and bandanna that made him look like an extra from a Rambo flick while embarking on what may be his last chance for a first Wimbledon title.
Unveiling his vintage serve-and-volley style, No. 3-seeded Rafter defeated Daniel Vacek, 6-2, 7-6 (7), 6-3.
If the match lacked spark, it didn't really matter, because this was Rafter making peace with Centre Court.
In last year's men's final, Rafter pushed a nervous shot in a tiebreaker against Pete Sampras, and then watched as twilight fell on Centre Court and Sampras won. Like almost everyone else in the bandbox of an arena, Rafter was a spectator at the end, as Sampras won a 13th Grand Slam title, making history and finishing off a drama.
Within hours of the loss, Rafter was on a plane back to Australia, bound for the Davis Cup.
What might have been is not a question that haunts Rafter.
"You know, I had my opportunity, and I slipped," he said. "Doesn't keep me up at nights. Still won't. It's just a tennis match. It would have been great to have won it. I was nervous. I choked. That's the way it goes. I went out there, gave myself the best opportunity. No one died over it."
Rafter's ability to place tennis in its proper perspective is a welcome relief on a tour dominated by tunnel-vision kids led around by agents, sponsors and coaches.
He has long been his own man, living in Bermuda and venturing out on the men's tour to play with a swashbuckling style that brought him two U.S. Open crowns.
At 28, dealing with an inflamed elbow and nursing the memory of a shoulder injury that required surgery, Rafter could be on the way out.
He said there's a "good chance it would be my last year, but I really would like to take six months off from the game."
He added: "Nothing is 100 percent definite. I've always kept that little window open in case I miss it [tennis] again."
Finally, when asked what he would do, he said: "It's a secret, because I don't know. I just want to wake up in the morning, go for a swim on the beach, do some yoga, play a little golf."
It would be a nice life.
But first, Rafter has to deal with Wimbledon. His side of the draw is pretty fascinating, because in the semifinals lies a potential rematch against No. 2 Andre Agassi. Last year, they belted it out for five sets and Rafter slipped through.
"Gee, I'd just be really happy to get there," Rafter said. "I enjoy playing Andre. I think we match up pretty well. I'd really love to say that we had a rivalry going."
Agassi, who defeated Peter Wessels, 7-6 (1), 6-4, 6-4, looks upon Rafter as a rival who "forces you to really be at your best."
"I always feel that sort of intensity when I play him," Agassi said.
But as open as Rafter can be, Agassi can be somewhat tight-lipped.
A British tabloid reporter, noting that Agassi's girlfriend, Steffi Graf, was wearing a gold band on her ring finger, wanted to know if Agassi had any plans to marry.
"Why don't you think of a question that is your business?" Agassi said.
The reporter plowed on, saying Agassi's fans were "keen" to know the answer.
"I'm sure," Agassi said. "I'll wait 'til they ask me."
Agassi was also asked about retirement plans and said: "I don't know how my career's going to end or really when it's going to end. I can say that I hope it ends at the time when I just can't really do it anymore, can't win anymore. I hope it happens no later and no sooner than that."
Still, Agassi is enjoying a late-career push, winning the past Australian Open, coming to Wimbledon as one of the favorites instead of one of the veterans struggling to hang on.
"It still feels like I can do this for a while," Agassi said. "But I think a lot has to go right."
Today's men's singles
Pete Sampras (1), United States, vs. Barry Cowan, Britain
Thomas Johansson (11), Sweden, vs. Andy Roddick, United States
Tim Henman (6), Britain, vs. Martin Lee, Britain
Juan Carlos Ferrero (8), Spain, vs. Jason Stoltenberg, Australia
Today's women's singles
Jennifer Capriati (4), United States, vs. Francesca Schiavone, Italy
Serena Williams (5), U.S., vs. Barbara Rittner, Germany