Graf's perfection awaits Novotna

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Tennis Correspondent

We can at least guarantee the Duchess of Kent a dry shoulder if she attends tomorrow's women's singles semi-finals - unless she is seized by an urge to leap from the Royal Box to console Jana Novotna. That would be no more surprising than some of the other incidents at a bizarre championships.

What appeared to be a red stain ran down Steffi Graf's blouse from her left shoulder yesterday, as if she had strayed into a Greg Rusedski serve. It turned out to be part of the pattern of her outfit. Certainly there are few women on the Tour capable of hurting the world No 1 in her current form.

The top seed described her performance in the second set of yesterday's quarter-final against Mary Joe Fernandez as "perfect". Her American opponent would hardly dispute that, having spent the last 20 minutes of the match watching the balls flash by. During that time, Fernandez won seven points before the umpire called game, set, and match, 6-3, 6-0.

The opening set had raised hopes of a close contest. Fernandez, although broken in the second game, made a swift, spirited recovery, breaking Graf in the next game and winning five consecutive points from 0-40 to hold for 3-3. Although Graf broke again for 5-3, the German required six set points to clinch the set.

She did not look back, winning the first 12 points of the second set to take a 3-0 lead, and then recovering from 0-40 to complete her glide into the last four. "I was really going for my shots, and I felt I could do anything that I wanted to," she said. "Whenever I play that kind of tennis - first round or last round - it's such a joy to be out there."

Novotna ensured that she would renew acquaintance with Graf with a comfortable 6-2, 6-3 win against Kimiko Date; not an auspicious first appearance in the women's singles quarter-finals for Japan. Even so, Novotna gave a yelp of delight - or relief - after punching away a backhand volley on the third match point.

Finishing important matches is not the Czech player's forte. Just when she seems to have put one capitulation behind her, another materialises. Wimbledon '93 was the nadir, when she lost after being only five points from victory, leading Graf by 4-1 in the deciding set of the final. But little more than a month ago, she led the young American Chanda Rubin 5-0 in the final set of their third-round match at the French Open, then blew nine match points. Au revoir.

Novotna is able to rationalise such aberrations by arguing that she does not "choke", but simply goes for winners which have a knack of missing.

Asked if the memory of 1993 would affect her preparations, she said: "Not at all. We are two years further. And nobody really expected me to do so well after my bad clay-court season. I think it is a complete surprise to everybody, and I am pleased the way I have been able to forget about everything and just try to focus on my game."

A similar question was put to Graf. "It's difficult to say, because you can never put yourself into somebody else's mind," she responded. "I tend to think you can [forget about it], because you know you've had your chances, and maybe this is just another opportunity. You could be more relaxed, or more tense. Maybe it will affect her, but I don't think it will affect me."

Graf has won 23 of their 26 previous matches, including six in a row since the Wimbledon final. Novotna acknowledged that her progess to meeting Graf on this occasion has been low key by comparison.

"In 1993, it was a little more exciting," she said, "because in the quarter- finals I played Gabriela Sabatini, who was seeded ahead of me, and in the semi-finals I beat Martina [Navratilova] for the first time in my career. This time I have been playing players ranked below me, and you are sort of expected to win."

All that ended yesterday, when the top four seeds advanced to the semi- finals for the third time in 15 years. Spain is guaranteed a finalist; Conchita Martinez, the defending champion (No 3), facing Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who was projected to play Graf in Saturday's final.

Most of the excitement yesterday was confined to the contest on Centre Court between Martinez and Gabriela Sabatini; partly because both players produced some fine shots, but chiefly because their errors maintained a sense of uncertainty until Martinez held her nerve to win, 7-5, 7-6.

Sanchez Vicario advanced to her first Wimbledon semi-final after fending off the the big-serving Brenda Schultz-McCarthy. Sanchez Vicario won, 6-4, 7-6, but encountered problems in both sets.

The Dutch player broke for 4-3 in the first set, only for her opponent to strike back immediately. Then, after taking a 2-1 lead (requiring six break points) in the second set, Schultz-McCarthy hung on until the eighth game before Sanchez Vicario broke back. The Spaniard won the tie-break, 7-6.

"It's one of the happiest days of my life," Sanchez Vicario said. "I'm playing well at the moment, and my goal was to pass the quarter-finals. I enjoy myself much more on grass now, so I'm having fun when I play. And it's good that one Spanish player is going to be in the final."

Sanchez Vicario has won six of her nine matches against Martinez, but this will be their first meeting on grass. Their only previous contest at one of the Grand Slam championships was in the semi-finals of last year's French Open, Sanchez Vicario winning, 6-3, 6-1.

Schultz-McCarthy made light of the fact that she had spent the previous evening worrying about the whereabouts of Murphy Jensen, who disappeared after failing to show up for their mixed doubles match. "I think I had my mind somewhere else today," she said, "but it was definitely not about Murphy."

Graf ended the day by taking a trip to an outside court to watch her coach, Heinz Gunthardt, partnering Guillermo Vilas in the Over-35 doubles against Brian Gottfried and Raul Ramirez. She had to stand for a while, signing autographs, until a seat came available. Gunthardt was on the losing side. You can't win them all.

Dressing-room argument

The Australian Davis Cup team-mates Todd Woodbridge and Pat Rafter were involved in a dressing-room row after an acrimonious doubles match in which the title holders, Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, beat Rafter and Mark Philippousis 6-2, 1-6, 6-2, 7-6.

Feeling was stirred up by the energetic vocal support given to Rafter by his English girlfriend, Alexandra. Woodbridge confronted her after the match to say she had taken her backing too far.

When the players reached the changing-room, Rafter turned on Woodbridge and a fierce slanging match took place, although Wimbledon officials are unlikely to take action because there were no code violations during the match and the difference of opinion was in private.

Martina Navratilova and Jonathan Stark continued their progress in the mixed doubles. They beat Rick Leach, of the United States, and Natasha Zvereva, of Belarus, 6-3, 6-3, to reach the last eight.


n I don't think I can be beaten if I carry on playing the way I did in the second set. It's been years since I reached that level at Wimbledon. Steffi Graf after her quarter-final defeat of Mary Joe Fernandez.

n Oh, well, what did you have in mind? Your face is getting pretty red now. Graf's response to a question asking was there anything to beat the buzz she got from playing the perfect set.

n I need the challenge, the tour needs it and the media need it. Graf on the women's game's pressing requirement for the return of Monica Seles.

n It's a surprise to everybody. I didn't come into the tournament with any great expectation. I didn't expect anything from myself. Jana Novotna after disposing of Japan's Kimiko Date.

n This is one of the happiest days of my life. My goal was to try to pass the quarters. Now that I've done it, it feels great. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario celebrates reaching her first Wimbledon semi-final.

n I won't be thinking about who it is on the other side of the net. The good thing is that there must now be one Spanish player in the final, but nobody is thinking about the country of the opponent when they are out there. It is just another player you have to beat. Sanchez Vicario on the prospect of playing Conchita Martinez in the semi.

n People should know I won't let my title go just like that. Nobody will take it away from me without a fight. Conchita Martinez.