Wimbledon `97: Kournikova's class dazzles Centre Court

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A funny thing happened on Centre Court yesterday. Attention was dragged kicking and screaming from Anna Kournikova's much-photographed figure and focused instead on her tennis. Seeds have come and gone during Wimbledon 1997 but surprises do not get much bigger than that.

The unseeded girl who has launched a thousand clicks made it to the semi- finals, beating the fourth seed, Iva Majoli, 7-6, 6-4, and will now have to be taken seriously as a player as well as a clothes horse. For pretty, read pretty good. "I feel unbelievable right now," she said. "I'm very happy."

Kournikova had never played Majoli competively before although if she had ever looked in the mirror she would have had a rough idea what to expect. Double backhand, a wallop of a forehand, they could have come from the same pod, which in a sense they are: the Nick Bolletieri camp in Florida. The only difference is the grunt that came from Majoli's side of the net although, given the way these women crash their strokes, it could have been the ball groaning.

They had nearly identical styles, the difference was imagination. Majoli hardly ever strayed from her security blanket that the rest of us call the baseline but Kournikova was prepared to adapt. Services were broken like reeds but the Russian could come to the net if the situation demanded, her opponent was rooted.

Majoli, 19, was serving for the first set at 5-3, blew it and never regained her early momentum. So, instead of experience prevailing, it was the 16- year-old Russian playing in her first grand slam quarter-final.

"Anna played better," the French Open champion said. "I gave her a chance to play and on grass the one who is attacking usually wins. She was taking chances and playing very risky. Some days those flat balls go in, sometimes they don't."

Jana Novotna knows that better than most as she has faced 16 grand slam quarter-finals and nearly every one has been a contest with herself as much as her opponent. Yesterday she was expected to beat Indonesia's Yayuk Basuki, which is often a cue for a scare, but to confound us all, the Czech sailed serenely through 6-3, 6-3. From 3-2 in the first set she lost only seven points on her serve.

Maybe her physical frailty gave her inward strength because she complained of sore knees after beating Mary Joe Fernandez on Tuesday evening and a weary arm yesterday. "My thighs and knees felt a little better," she said, "but my arm is getting heavier and heavier because of that long match yesterday." Her string man is suffering from sore limbs, too, after loosening the tension on her rackets by three kilos to compensate for the heavy balls and atmosphere.

Novotna now meets Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, who defeated Nathalie Tauziat 6-2, 7-5. It will be a contest between the winners of the women's doubles title two years ago but not necessarily a meeting of minds because they split in less than perfect harmony earlier this year. "I have no problem with her at all," Novotna said. "We shall see today.

Martina Hingis regards Denisa Chladkova as a friend, which makes you wonder how she treats her enemies. Yesterday the No 1 seed chased her childhood playing partner out of the women's singles, beating her 6-3, 6-2 in 59 minutes.

Her meeting with Kournikova today will be a battle of the 16-year-olds and possibly a harbinger of many contests to come. "Until now I've beaten her pretty easily," Hingis said.

Until now.