Tennis: Wimbledon '94 / Emotions preying on Fernandez

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YOUNGER readers will find it hard to believe that there was a time when Boris Becker upset only the order of things instead of every other player he met at Wimbledon.

Before 1985 no non-seed had won the men's singles since a form of preferential segregation was introduced in 1924, but the 17-year-old Becker tore that to shreds and it would take an upset of almost the same seismic proportions for Gigi Fernandez or Lori McNeil to get to the women's final.

Five of the great unranked have reached the women's last four at Wimbledon since tennis went open in 1968 but on each occasion they have been firmly reminded not to mess around with their betters. Martina Navratilova has been particularly ruthless, snubbing out the unseeded insurrection of Yvonne Vermaak (1983) and Catarina Lindqvist (1989) without surrendering a set.

Which does not exactly inspire confidence in Fernandez who will attempt to stop the emotional bandwagon driving Navratilova to a 10th title. The task is more difficult as the American doubles specialist has had to rapidly switch tack after orginally being at the front, driving the team of horses.

'I was rooting for Martina to win this at the beginning,' Fernandez admitted after her 6-4, 6-4 win over Zina Garrison Jackson in the previous round. 'I wanted to see her go out finishing her career winning Wimbledon one more time. But I'll have to forget that for a match.

'She's going to have the crowd behind her - she's a legend playing on Centre Court - but that's secondary. The hardest thing for me is playing a friend.'

Even that crippling emotional baggage might not be a problem, however, if Fernandez was not handicapped by the sort of leg injuries that would have had footballers out of the World Cup before you could say 'get the medical cart on, quick'.

She arrived at the All England Club carrying an injury to her left thigh and has since had enough wrapping round her legs to keep the St John's Ambulance Brigade going in bandages until the new year. To date she has had a hip injury, a hamstring strain and tweak of what she calls her left quad, which to the non-medical among us is at the front of the thigh. As Fernandez said on Tuesday: 'Right, correct. I have no legs.'

The legless Fernandez has pulled out of the mixed doubles, but she hobbled round Court 14 yesterday in the company of Natalia Zvereva in pursuit of what she says is her priority, a Grand Slam in the women's doubles. They already have the Australian and French titles in their pockets and they moved to within three wins of the Wimbledon title with a 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 win against Yayuk Basuki and Nana Miyagi. The bulletin afterwards was favourable if not encouraging: sore but not terminal.

Given the disadvantages that Fernandez will take on court today, McNeil is positively favoured but there was a body of opinion anyway that she might defy precedent and reach the final by upsetting the third seed Conchita Martinez.

McNeil is ranked 22 in the world but there would be few dissenters if she was put among the top 10 on grass and Pam Shriver rated her as among the four most dangerous opponents that Steffi Graf could meet. That proved to be particularly prescient when the American ousted the top seed, and she has gained coinfidence as she has progressed through the tournament.

'I have always believed that if I worked hard enough I would have an opportunity to win Wimbledon,' she said, 'and I have been working very hard. Emotionally it's been very tough. It's been a fight out there.'

It has also been a struggle for Martinez to take to grass. An out and out clay-courter, she avoided coming to Wimbledon until two years ago and even then took to the surface with the suspicion of someone trying to find a hidden path through quicksand.

Reaching the semi-finals last year removed her aversion, however, and, with the bounce getting higher on the sun-baked courts, she has been able to manipulate the ball from the baseline. 'It depends on the way I'm going to return,' she said, assessing the outcome of today's match. 'If I do that well I will have a chance.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- WOMENS' SEMI-FINAL HEAD-TO-HEADS ----------------------------------------------------------------- LORI McNEIL v CONCHITA MARTINEZ Year Tournament Surface Rd Winner Score 1988 French Open Clay 32 Martinez 1-6 6-3 6-1 1992 Pilkington Glass Grass 16 McNeil 6-0 6-3 1992 VS Championships Carpet QF McNeil 3-6 6-3 6-2 MARTINA NAVRATILOVA v GIGI FERNANDEZ 1984 VS Newport Grass F Navratilova 6-3 7-6 1985 US Indoor Carpet QF Navratilova 6-2 2-6 6-3 1986 VS New England Carpet 32 Navratilova 6-3 7-5 1987 Wimbledon Grass 16 Navratilova 6-3 6-1 1988 VS Washington Carpet 16 Navratilova 6-4 6-3 1989 Canadian Open Hard 32 Navratilova 3-6 6-1 6-3 1993 Eastbourne Grass QF Navratilova 6-1 6-3 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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