WIMBLEDON, England — Don’t bury the male species yet.

Oh, I know, these days men’s tennis is as exciting as a traffic cone. They serve, they mumble, they cash the check.

But out of the rain, the clouds and the lengthy delays of this long and winding Wimbledon, we have emerged with a terrific semifinal cast of men, all of whom are scheduled to play today. (True, “scheduled to play” at Wimbledon means, “Bring a raincoat and a deck of cards.” But what can you do?)

Still, for all the talk about the colorful, glamorous and controversial women, the female final four has only the shy Steffi Graf, the ignored Lindsay Davenport and two unseeded, teenaged never-heard-of-’ems.

Whereas the male side is as good as it gets.

The Men-pire Strikes Back!

Let’s begin with the match that has this whole country on nervous edge, America’s Pete Sampras against Britain’s Tim Henman, or as they call him here,
“Our Brave Tim” — or as we call him in the U.S., “Another One Bites The Dust.”

Let’s face it. History is on the Yankee side. The Brits have been praying for a male Wimbledon champion since 1936, when Fred Perry did it. That was a long time ago. There is now a statue of Fred Perry outside Centre Court. And it still hits better than most English players.

Henman has been an exception. He has done well here the last few years, rising from the quarterfinals in 1996 and 1997 to the semifinals in 1998. And every year, the fans fill the stands, paint their faces with the Union Jack and scream for the lad to rise to his glory. It doesn’t matter that his game is best on grass, that he has never reached the quarterfinals of any other Grand Slam. For English fans, Wimbledon is the one that counts. This is home turf, and Tim is their boy. You can tell by his teeth.

Sorry, that wasn’t nice. I am, however, an American, whereas Henman is clearly dyed-in-the-wool British. Went to fine schools. Is well-mannered. Has the proper, short-haired girlfriend, watching loyally in the stands.

He also loses well, a supremely British trait.

Which is what the locals are afraid of.

Sampras against Henman

That’s because Sampras — who beat Henman last year in the semis — will be across the net again. We all know about Sampras. He is the big tree in the forest that falls when no one is around. Sampras is the No. 1 player in the world, has won five of the last six Wimbledons and will end up with more Grand Slams than anyone else in history unless he suddenly quits to join the Greg Brady Lookalike Tour.

Has there ever been a more dominant U.S. athlete with a lower profile? Maybe in team handball. Sampras, a decent fellow, remains uninterested in marketing fame, guest spots in sitcoms, or hosting “Saturday Night Live.” He doesn’t care who knows him. He comes here every year, mows the grass, holds up the trophy, blows a few kisses and heads for the golf course.

Which, by the way, is where he became buddies with Henman.

“We play a lot of golf together, hang out,” Sampras said. “We’ve gotten to be good friends.”

“What is the common denominator?” a reporter asked.

“We speak English,” Sampras said.

Hey. He made a joke.

Sampras reached the semis in fortunate fashion, when Mark Philippoussis had to quit Friday’s quarterfinal due to an injury. Philippoussis was up a set on Sampras at the time and was running him ragged, and maybe that bodes badly for Pete today and maybe it just means he’ll be more rested.

“I’m still pretty good at this game,” Sampras said.

Hey. Another joke!

Agassi against Rafter

The second men’s match is equally intriguing, pitting Aussie hunk Patrick Rafter against the tennis cat with nine lives, Andre Agassi.

Rafter is a good story, the product of a large, poor family in Australia who gives lots of money to charities, doesn’t seem to realize how good-looking he is, and once said, when he was honored with an award, “I prefer to stay the same old sack of bleep that I always was.”

Can’t knock that.

Rafter, the two-time defending U.S. Open champ, will be taking on Agassi, everyone’s favorite “look who’s back” story. NBC is praying Agassi makes the final against Sampras and rekindles their rivalry. It was only two years ago, amazingly, that Andre was so far down in tennis, he had to play satellite qualifiers just to get his ranking out of the toilet.

Now, having won the French Open in stunning fashion a month ago, he stands on the lip of not only a second Wimbledon crown, but, if he wins today, a return to the No. 1 ranking.

That makes Andre the happiest bald and divorced man since Burt Reynolds.

On Friday, having disposed of Brazil’s Gustavo Kuerten in straight sets, Andre was in a joking mood. Someone asked him about his first win, which came in Brazil, Kuerten’s homeland.

“I remember the crowd was going nuts,” Agassi said. “I also remember a lot of women in dental-floss bathing suits. Once I stopped looking at that and started looking at (my opponent), the match got better, but it was a step down visually.”

Neither should be a problem for fans today. The popular tennis credo may be
“men boring, women exciting.” But with a final four of perhaps the greatest player ever, his most arch rival, a hometown British hero and an Aussie heartthrob who prefers to remain a sack of bleep, well, hey, what’s the matter with that?

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com

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