Tennis: Date's daring bears fruit on bigger stage: Japan's rising star has her day in the sun to earn a semi-final against the world No 1

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The Independent Online
WITH the rising sun - temperatures climbed above 100F for the second consecutive day - came Kimiko Date, the hottest Japanese player on the women's tour for 21 years. For once, the vociferous young Swedish supporters, who help to make the Australian Open such fun, gave way to 11 Date cheerleaders lined up on the back row of the Centre Court, faces painted, banners ready, chants rehearsed.

It is not every day that one gets an opportunity to see a Japanese advance to the semi-finals of a Grand Slam championship. Kazuko Sawamatsu is the only other woman to accomplish the feat, at the 1973 Australian Open, recovering from 0-6 to defeat Britain's Virginia Wade in three sets in the quarter-finals and then losing to Evonne Goolagong in the last four.

The 23-year-old Date's reward, along with pounds 57,000, is the right to challenge Steffi Graf, the French, Wimbledon and United States champion and world No 1. The winner will play Arantxa Sanchez Vicario or Gabriela Sabatini in Saturday's final.

As the diminutive No 10 seed from Kyoto stepped on court for her quarter-final match against Conchita Martinez, the No 3 seed from Spain, two messages of encouragement may have caught her eye. One read, 'A woman needs courage', the other, 'You can do it]'

Date knew she had the measure of Martinez, having defeated her, 6-3, 6-0, en route to winning the New South Wales Open in Sydney the day before arriving at Flinders Park. She also believed that she had the heart to reproduce that form on the bigger stage. Back home, the name Date is associated with samurai.

Everything was going smoothly until the ninth game of the second set. Date, tormenting her opponent with deep, flat shots, particularly to the backhand, had taken the first set, 6-2, in 33 minutes.

The players exchanged breaks of serve early in the second set, and Martinez then saved two break points at 4-4. Date created a third, only to hit a smash out of bounds. She won only one more point, and the match was level.

'Bankai]' (Come back]) cried Date's support group. 'Ganbare]' (Go for it]).

Date responded and won, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. In the long run, her forehand errors (29) proved less costly than Martinez's lapses on the backhand (39). The ambidextrous Japanese also added to her opponent's confusion by hitting the occasional forehand left-handed.

It will be interesting to see if the 5ft 4in Date copes any better with Graf's forehand than the 6ft 2in Lindsay Davenport. Though the 17-year-old American broke Graf early in the first set of their quarter-final and had two break points early in the second set, the score, 6-3, 6-2, encapsulated the gulf in class and experience.

'She definitely has a lot of potential,' Graf said. 'It just depends what she's going to do with it. I think she knows she can get in better shape. That's probably why she's not moving as good as she can.'

At one stage it appeared that a stomach upset would put Sabatini out of the quarter-finals, but the fourth seed turned up on time and used the high bounce from her topspin to atone for last year's defeat by Jana Novotna at Wimbledon.

The Czech, a finalist here in 1991, found Sabatini's style more difficult to counter on the rubberised concrete court than on the grass of the All England Club. The fifth-seeded Novotna could hardly expect to make progress with an unreliable serve and a high percentage of unforced errors.

Sabatini, a 6-3, 6-4 winner, will anticipate a more difficult time against Sanchez Vicario in the semi-finals. The second seed scurried to good purpose in defeating Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere, 7-6, 6-4, having eliminated her sister, Magdalena, in the fourth round.

For Maleeva-Fragniere, the oldest of the three tour-playing sisters from Bulgaria, the defeat marked the end of 12 years of Grand Slam tournaments. 'I am a little bit sad because I know it's the last time,' the 26-year-old said, 'and on the other hand I am happy, because I am going to start a new life.'

She is pleased, also, to be freeing her husband, Francois, from the stress of waching her matches. 'He told me that when I played the other day, and it was 5-5 in the third set, he measured his pulse because he thought he was going to have a heart attack, and it was 192. So imagine how relieved he will be.'

(Photograph omitted)