THE French Open was desperate for an epic, and the women provided it yesterday. Mary Joe Fernandez was down 1-6, 1-5,
30-40 with Gabriela Sabatini serving for a place in the semi- finals. The third seed double- faulted, and Fernandez saved a further four match points and went on to win, 1-6, 7-6, 10-8 on her fifth match point.
Though the amazing recovery owed as much to Sabatini's loss of nerve as to Fernandez's resilience, it stands comparison with Michael Chang's comeback against Ivan Lendl here in 1989 and Jimmy Connors' great escape against Mikael Pernfors at Wimbledon in 1987.
Sabatini took only half an hour to win the opening set, and 53 minutes had elapsed when she prepared to serve on the first match point. Fernandez glanced at the clock.
'I told myself I had got to try to make the one-hour mark,' she said. Fernandez walked from the 'bullring' Court One in triumph after three hours and 35 minutes, the longest women's singles match of the year and the third longest in the open era.
Sabatini could not believe how the match ran away from her, though it was typical that her vulnerable serve should let her down. Trying to push the double-fault out of her mind, the Argentinian created three more match points when serving at
5-3 and a fifth in the next game.
'I got a little bit nervous, but it was more that I lost my concentration,' Sabatini said. 'Then she started to hit the ball so hard and was playing unbelievably.' Even so, Fernandez continued to be helped by the lack of power in her opponent's serve, which gained only one point in the tie-break, which the American won 7-4.
Not long afterwards, it was Fernandez's turn to experience a tightening of the nerves. She had her first match point after two hours and 40 minutes, with Sabatini serving at 5-4 in the final set. The Argentinian saved it by hitting a line with a backhand volley.
The next two match points came in the 12th game, after Sabatini had been treated for a blister on her left foot. The Argentinian saved the first with a splendid backhand down the line, and Fernandez, attempting a similar stroke, missed the sideline going for the second.
She was then broken for 7-6, only to break back immediately and then create another opportunity to win the match in the 16th game. A backhand played into the net put paid to that one.
Sabatini had one more gift to offer. She double-faulted in the 18th game, and Fernandez brought the contest to a close with the flourish of a backhand down the line.
In tomorrow's semi-finals Fernandez will play Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who is experiencing a sense of deja vu. When the Spaniard won the title in 1989, she defeated Jana Novotna in the quarter-finals, Fernandez in the semis and Steffi Graf in the final. Sanchez Vicario began to tread a familiar path yesterday with a 6-2, 7-5 win against Novotna - on her sixth match point.
Graf will advance to Saturday's final if she can extend a 5-0 sequence of wins against her 18- year-old compatriot, Anke Huber, tomorrow. The Wimbledon champion reached the semi- finals with a 6-3, 7-5 victory against the 16-year-old Jennifer Capriati and has grown in confidence match by match.
Earlier, Jim Courier had become the first player to advance to the semi-finals, defeating Goran Prpic, of Croatia, 6-1, 4-6, 6-0, 7-5. Not that the defending champion is entirely pleased with life at Roland Garros. Having won the title here for the past two years, the American thought he deserved greater consideration than to be asked to play on consecutive days. He had defeated the Austrian Thomas Muster on Monday, in a match held over from Sunday because of rain, and considered that this entitled him to a day off.
'I did not want to play today, I didn't need to play today, it's as simple as that,' Courier said. 'But the fact of the matter is they don't care what I think. They just care about their precious little TV and their schedule.' The 'precious little TV' happens to contribute a considerable amount to the prize- money, and the hard-working Courier will not play again until Friday.
'They had four women's quarter-finals, why do they need men's matches today? I don't get it,' Courier added. 'They had the option not to do it, and they have chosen to do it the wrong way as far as I am concerned. There is a quote from James Joyce. It says, 'Not in time, place or circumstance, but in man lies success'.'
That would have added a nice literary touch to Courier's acceptance speech at the world champion's dinner here last night. But alas, he did not bother to
Results, Sporting Digest, page 33
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