RISING Australian tennis star Patrick Rafter reached his first tournament final when he defeated second seed American Ivan Lendl in the semi-finals of the US$320,000 Salem Hong Kong Open yesterday at Victoria Park.
The fourth-seed, who has made rapid progress up the world rankings list following some eye-catching performances, overcame the sweltering conditions to beat veteran Lendl 6-3, 6-4 and break a semi-final jinx that has plagued him this season.
But in the final, he faces top-seeded American-Chinese Michael Chang - an opponent who will have the full backing of an expected capacity crowd of more than 4,000 - and who has yet to win a title in Hong Kong.
Chang defeated third-seeded American Brad Gilbert 6-2, 7-5 in his semi-final.
Rafter, 21, has risen to 26 in the world from 57 at the end of last year and his impressive results this season include a victory over former world number one Jim Courier.
''It is good to be in the final here, but I still have to finish it off,'' said Rafter, who lives in Bermuda. ''I'll have to play well, as I expect the crowd to be against me.
''But if I play well, I'm sure I can cause another surprise.'' The soft-spoken Aussie admitted afterwards that he suffered the jitters during the match.
''When I went 1-0 up in the second set, I was starting to get nervous.'' Chang, who was presented with flowers and fruit hampers by fans after a post-match interview, is not thinking about that elusive Hong Kong triumph but prefers to leave his fate in divine hands.
He said: ''My concern is to play the best tennis I can. I'll let God take his course and if it is his will that I win, then that's great.
''I don't feel I am playing the best of my career. At 22, I still think I'm young enough and maybe further down the road I can play better tennis.'' He said Gilbert provided tougher opposition than the score suggested.
''Brad is the type of player who will make you think in a match,'' said Chang. ''He is always getting another ball back. It can be frustrating playing someone like that.'' Chang's breaks in the third and seventh games of the match were enough to give him the first set.
The pair traded breaks early in the second set and after breaking Gilbert in the ninth, Chang double-faulted twice to allow his opponent to get back into the match.
But Chang broke again in the next game and then held serve to close the match.
Gilbert occasionally succeeded in putting the ball beyond Chang's reach, but for the most part, Chang retrieved almost everything.
''I have a horrible record playing against short guys,'' joked Gilbert. ''Under five-foot nine, anyway. They give me a lot of problems.
''I think Chang is playing a lot better than when he won the French Open.'' Lendl was probably feeling the effects of a schedule that became heavily congested following several rain delays earlier in the week.
He had to play three three-set matches on Friday and did not finish until late into the night.
Soon after his defeat to Rafter, Lendl joined Danish partner Kenneth Carlsen in the doubles competition and the pair advanced to the semi-finals with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over Australian David Adams and Russian Andrei Olhovskiy.
But that was as far as they went as they lost 6-3, 6-3 to the American-Kiwi pair of Jim Grabb and Brett Steven.
Rafter also has the doubles final to look forward to as he partnered Swede Jonas Bjorkman to a 7-6 (9-7), 6-4 victory over Canadian pair Sebastien Lareau and Daniel Nestor in the semi-finals.