Martinez gives value for money

The 'Latin quarter' brought the ladies' tournament to life, writes Tim Glover

Say what you like about women's tennis, but it beats working for a living. It makes some men, most conspicuously the fathers of the contestants, extremely happy, not to mention proud.

Take Osvaldo Sabatini and Cecilio Martinez. Osvaldo retired in 1986 after a career as an executive with General Motors, but the smartest move he ever made was to buy his daughter, Gabriela, a tennis racket. She in return, after amassing about $8m (pounds 5m) in prize money, bought a ranch three years ago and appointed her father as curator. As for Cecilio, a retired accountant, he can give Conchita fiscal advice on a purse in excess of $4m.

Even by modern standards of professional sport, the sums are ludicrous, but yesterday the All England Club were indebted to Martinez and Sabatini.

Conveniently, the quarter-finals were completed before the announcement of another one-sided victory at Westminster, but at least Conchita and Gabriela gave the crowd on Centre Court their money's worth. The duration of their match in the Latin quarter was eight minutes short of two hours, and at the end, when the 23-year-old Spaniard defeated the 25-year-old Argentinian, 7-5, 7-6, they were given a standing ovation.

Whether this was more for endurance than quality is open to debate, but the fact that the players broke sweat has something to commend it. Martinez is the defending champion, although it is a fair bet that if you asked half the people here who won last year, they would say Steffi Graf. The other half would probably say Martina Navratilova.

Martinez, though, is a tough hombre. Question: Do you actually feel like the Wimbledon champion, or do you feel that Steffi is just going to come along and take the title away? Answer: "I'm the defending champion. I'm the Wimbledon champion. Nobody can take it away from me. I have a lot of confidence right now."

What lifted the spectators was that the match had an element of suspense. Sabatini, with a couple of breaks of serve, led 4-1 in the first set, and then did what she has so often done in the past - she fell on her posterior. Serving for the set in the 10th game, she tossed in two double faults and in between went sprawling near the baseline to concede another point.

Martinez, who has yet to concede a set here, had been so nervous at the start that Sabatini served two double faults in the second game and still won; in the fifth, Martinez put together a string of double faults to go 4-1 down. In the deciding game of the first set, Sabatini saved two set points, but Martinez is not just tough, she is cute.

A largish woman, she is not the fastest mover around a court, and when she is forced to run flat-out, heavy breathing ensues. At times like this, Martinez's shoelaces tend to come undone. In the second set, it was Sabatini who appeared to be fading fast and in no time at all she was 5-1 down.

This, of course, was also vintage Sabatini. This is the girl who has had a fiery orange-red rose named in her honour, has launched a perfume, signed a multi-million dollar contract with Pepsi, and had a doll produced in her likeness.

Sabatini had been in no-woman's land in the second set, and was unsure whether to unreservedly take the high ground at the net or stay back. Martinez's strength, apart from being able to win matches on a surface that is supposed to be anathema to her game, is that she possesses a red- blooded cross-court backhand.

What had become a disconcerting experience for Sabatini nearly became one of her finest hours. In the eighth game, she saved two match points and the crowd began to sense a revival.

Gaby, who had been the queen of unforced errors and double faults, kept the ball in play and won four games in a row to level. The tie-break was also close, but ultimately it was decided by a rare burst of adventure from Martinez. A confirmed baseliner, she approached the net and punched away the winning volley.

She is almost equally as defensive in the interview room. Question: Do you detect a lack of interest in your defence of the title? Answer: "The only thing I can tell you right now is that I'm incredibly happy to be in the semi-finals. I'm sure some things are upsetting me, but the worst thing that can happen is to let these things upset me."

The interview, sparsely attended, was then conducted in Spanish, and the inquisition sounded a great deal more interesting.

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