Tennis / Wimbledon '92: Sabatini left in dark on brink of victory

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The Independent Online
AFTER much of yesterday had been dominated by the unseeded Michael Fish and his gloomy weather charts, the interloping Boris Becker emerged to upstage the women's quarter-finals with a half hour of power. Monica Seles grunted a response shortly afterwards, and as dusk descended Gabriela Sabatini was called off when about to serve for the match against Jennifer Capriati.

Becker hit the first ball on the Centre Court at 5.13pm. Capriati hit the last ball at 9.01pm. The 16- year-old American wanted the match suspended after winning the second set, but her father, Stefano, urged her to continue. At

2-5 down in the final set, Capriati appealed to the umpire, Gerry Armstrong, to end play for the day. He, too, said play on. Finally, she was rescued by the referee, Alan Mills.

Whoever wins today will play the defending champion, Steffi Graf, who made the most comfortable progress of the women, defeating the unseeded Natalia Zvereva, 6-3, 6-1. If Sabatini holds her nerve, she will have an opportunty to atone for losing to Graf in last year's final, when the Argentinian twice served for the match.

It was a day of late decisions, and the one to bring forward the concluding set of Becker's fourth- round match against the South African Wayne Ferreira was fully justified after an afternoon of rain and with the men's quarter-finals due to be played today.

At the same time, Martina Navratilova was on Court One, serve-and-volleying her way past Katerina Maleeva, 6-3, 7-6, and into a semi-final against the premier baseliner, Monica Seles.

The world No 1, who followed Becker on Centre Court, was advised by the New Zealand umpire, David Crymble, to tone down her grunting after a complaint by her French opponent, Nathalie Tauziat.

'As the match advanced she screamed a lot, a lot, a lot,' Tauziat said. 'I couldn't really listen to the ball when she hit the ball. That's why I asked the umpire can she scream less than she screamed. It was too late, anyway.' It was, Seles who saved a break-point in the offending eighth game, then broke for the match, 6-1, 6-3.

For once, Becker was seen but not heard, the crispness of his performance eliminating any need to taunt himself with dark mumblings. During the hours of waiting there were many nudges and winks concerning the German's reputation as a slow starter, those doubting his prospects of advancing to meet Andre Agassi perhaps overlooking the point that Becker can be a devastating finisher.

The fourth seed had certainly opening sluggishly against Ferreira on Monday, and also failed to convert a match-point in the fourth set tie-break before bad light stopped play at two sets all. 'I didn't sleep great,' Becker said, no doubt making up for it after producing his best set for years to win, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1.

After breaking Ferreira's serve in the second game, Becker had two opportunities to do so again for 4-0. The South African salvaged the game with a backhand down the line and a forehand volley. It was all the 14th seed had to show for a brave campaign. 'It was good to see what makes a person like Boris as good as he is,' he said.

The display gladdened the eye of Becker's manager, Ion Tiriac, who has watched his player go through torments of self-doubt, on and off the court, for most of the year. 'That was some kind of set,' Tiriac said. 'I don't understand it. The guy is full-blooded. It goes against my principles that he can do something like that.

'When I was a player I practised eight hours a day to prepare for a championship like this. He wasn't match fit - 11 matches in four months is not enough for a tennis player - and it was his own fault he had to stay late on Monday night, because he gave away the fourth set. Then he goes out and plays like that.'

What can never be underestimated, by Agassi, or anybody else, is Becker's perennial desire to make an impact on these lawns. It is not by accident that he has won the title three times and contested six of the past seven finals. Asked if he had been in such a tight situation before, he said: 'At Wimbledon about 25 times.' It was a joke, but a pointed one.

Navratilova was showing similar tenacity long before Becker came on the scene, and her response to being broken when serving for the match at 5-4 was to overwhelm her Bulgarian opponent in the tie- break, securing the first five points, and winning, 7-2.

Seles was compartively sotto voce in the opening set against Tauziat, swishing her racket with two-handed gusto to win the opening five games in 16 minutes. The decibels rose after the players exchanged breaks of serve early in the second set, reaching a crescendo when a first Wimbledon semi-final was within sight.

She adroitly side-stepped controversy in the interview room. 'I think it's between me and the umpire what he wanted; it was not a warning or anything like that,' she said. 'Maybe it did bother her, the grunting. As I've said, I'm not doing it on purpose. I'm really trying to get rid of it. You don't know how hard I'm trying.'

Seles spoke respectfully of tomorrow's meeting with the nine- times champion. 'I'll have to raise my game quite a few levels for Martina, there's no question,' she said. 'I haven't played her in a while now. I've seen her play, and she's moving very well. My serving is going to have to be a lot better than today.

'Martina has played so many great matches on this court, she knows every angle of it. It's her favourite surface. She is one of the toughest to beat on this surface, against any player in the world.'

Though Seles leads their head- to-head series 6-5, this will be their first meeting in a Grand Slam tournament, and their first on grass. If the 35-year-old Navratilova holds her form and proves equal to the 18-year-old Seles's cross-court shots, it could be a classic.