Tennis / Wimbledon '94: Navratilova sets the stage for a grand finale: Nine-times champion overcomes practice partner Fernandez to secure a farewell final appearance against Martinez

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The Independent Online
AFTER a huge sigh of relief had trailed Martina Navratilova into her 12th and farewell final, the Centre Court spectators, curious to discover the identity of tomorrow's opponent, were drawn irresistibly to the edge of their seats by the tension and excitement of what followed.

The women's game is not supposed to possess players in sufficient quantity to produce matches of the quality of the semi-final between Conchita Martinez and the unseeded Lori McNeil. But, there again, we have been pleasantly surprised more than once during the past dozen days.

McNeil, who opened the door to opportunity by eliminating Steffi Graf in the first round, narrowly failed to sustain her challenge through to the finish: as narrowly as losing 10-8 in the final set.

Navratilova, the fourth seed, has spoken at length about her philosophy of living for the moment. Whatever tomorrow may bring, many moments were richly savoured in the evening shadow as Martinez, the third seed, edged her way through the tension, eventually finding the decisive shots after 2hr 34min to advance to her first Grand Slam final, 3-6,

6-2, 10-8.

Spain has had only one previous representative in the women's singles final, Lili de Alvarez being defeated for the third consecutive time 66 years ago, and Manuel Santana's triumph in 1966 stands alone among the men.

But that is history. In 'the now', as Navratilova would say, the summer has blessed Spanish tennis as never before. At the French Open, Sergi Bruguera defeated a compatriot, Alberto Berasategui, to retain the men's title and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario won the women's championship.

Shortly before this, Martinez successfully defended the Italian Open title in Rome, defeating Navratilova in the final, 7-6, 6-4 on the slower clay surface. Martinez then stepped aside as Navratilova took her curtain calls to rapturous applause; useful experience bearing in mind what the atmosphere will be like when they meet again at the heart of Navratilova's spiritual home.

The 37-year-old ensured her place in the final by defeating the unseeded Gigi Fernandez, 6-4, 7-6, in a match which became competitive after a start which suggested that Fernandez was about to do an impersonation of Long John Silver. Only one of her thighs, the left, was strapped on this occasion, but the first eight points had vanished before she showed the first sign of mobility, and Navratilova was leading 5-1 when she discovered she had an opponent.

'It took me five or six games to adjust to the surroundings,' Fernandez said, 'and then I just tried to pretend that we were practising at the Aspen Club. I think if I hadn't had such a slow start in terms of nerves and all that, it might have been a different story.'

Navratilova lost her serve with the opening set in range at 5-2, and was not unhappy to see her oppoment play a backhand beyond the baseline on set point at 5-4.

An air of garden party fun prevailed even at crucial moments in the second set. In the sixth game, for example, Fernandez crouched at the net, raising her racket in mock terror after failing to take a break point after the ball had ballooned off the frame of her racket. Navratilova tapped her on the head and told her to go away, but Fernandez bounced up and battled through six further break points to secure a 4- 2 lead.

A set point emerged for the Puerto Rico-born American at 5-3. Having saved a break point with a smash for deuce, she watched a service return go wide of a line, only to net a forehand volley. Navratilova, offered a second opportunity to save the set, took it with a backhand down the line.

The tie-break appeared to have become a formality with Navratilova leading, 4-1, but Fernandez fought back again and created a second set point off Navratilova's serve at 5-5.

A first serve from Fernandez at this juncture might have taken the match into a third set, but Navratilova pounced on a second delivery with a backhand return and went on to clinch the shoot- out 8-6, to win after 1hr 31min. On the final point, Fernandez failed to respond to a Navratilova volley, which landed in the court. 'I thought it was going out,' she said. 'I was right there. I let it go. Bad judgement.'

Navratilova raised a finger to the heavens. 'I said one more final. This is what I wanted last year. I said 'I'll be back'. I wanted that one more chance, and I'm there.'

Martinez was also rather taken with the notion of her first final, having lost to Graf in the semi-finals a year ago, though she would not want to experience some of the agonies of yesterday's final set.

Martinez, serving for the match for the first time, missed with a forehand to lose her advantage. A confident service return followed by a smash gave the Spaniard a second opportunity, and McNeil was allowed only one more point before Martinez swept her aside with a backhand across the court.

Asked if she was concerned about being on the other side of the net for Navratilova's farewell, Martinez said: 'No, it doesn't worry me at all. This match against Lori really helped my confidence. It's great to fight so much and then win. I don't have anything to lose. It's like, 'Go for it]' '

Navratilova, who knows the majority of crowd will be willing her to leave with title No 10, will realise she cannot take anything for granted. What was the phrase Pete Sampras used last year? 'Hasta la vista.'

Wimbledon reports, results and Order of Play page 39

(Photograph omitted)