WIMBLEDON, England -- It didn't seem to matter who won and who lost in yesterday's women's semifinals at Wimbledon. What counted was how loud Monica Seles grunted.
The primal screeching by Seles not only overshadowed her tightly contested three-set victory over nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova, but defending champion Steffi Graf's one-sided win over Gabriela Sabatini as well.
Forget about aces. Or double faults. Or even unforced errors. The most telling stat apparently is how many times Seles grunts (on nearly every point) and how distracting it is to the opposition (very).
Listen to Navratilova after she lost to Seles, 6-2, 6-7 (3-7), 6-4.
"It just gets louder and louder," fourth seed Navratilova, 35, said after seeing her chance at a 10th title denied. "You can not hear the ball being hit. If you judge by the noise that is emanating from the other side of the court, the ball should be coming over pretty hard. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't."
Listen to Seles after she advanced to her first Wimbledon final.
"The whole tour, I never got anything, and now it's become a pretty big issue here," top-seeded Seles, 18, said after her 40th straight Grand Slam match victory. "But I said millions of times that I'm not doing it on purpose. After this tournament, I'm going to practice to get rid of it, because I don't want to have it anymore."
For now, she will practice only for Graf, who beat Sabatini, 6-3, 6-3, in yesterday's quieter semifinal. The two top players in the women's game will play for the ladies' championship tomorrow afternoon (9 a.m. EDT).
It will mark their second straight Grand Slam final, after Seles' dramatic 10-8 victory in the third set of this year's French Open. Seles, who skipped Wimbledon in 1991, is looking for her sixth straight Grand Slam title.
The match between Seles and Navratilova was reminiscent of Seles vs. Graf in the French Open, after Navratilova came back to even the score at a set each by outplaying Seles in the second-set tiebreaker. But the third set turned sloppy, and a bit chatty, when Navratilova complained twice to chair umpire Fran McDowell of Washington, D.C. McDowell, in turn, quietly talked with Seles.
"It gets louder when it gets close," Navratilova said. "I mean, I was watching the French Open. If I had played her at the French Open, I would have complained. It is not a matter of complaining. I want to be able to hear the ball. I am not saying I lost because of her grunting. I would have said this and we would have been talking about it if I had won."
Said Seles: "She [the chair umpire] asked me twice about it. But she said, Martina didn't complain. She said, 'Miss Seles, would you keep it down?' Then I tried, and at one point I was."
Actually, it was for one point, a silently hit, perfectly placed, forehand service return down the line. But the grunts were not the only thing separating Seles from Navratilova yesterday.
In trying to put pressure on Seles, who plays almost exclusively from the baseline, Navratilova admitted taking a few too many chances by forcing to win points a few shots too early. The end of their match was exciting, but both played erratically, with five straight service breaks.
"A lot of pressure was on us that last game," said Seles, who closed out the match with a forehand past a lunging Navratilova. "When I hit that last shot, it was just a big relief. I was really happy it was over."
L Said Navratilova: "My problem is that I could not get even."
But she did get mad, angrier perhaps, at the questions she was asked about Seles' grunting than about losing the match. When someone asked her why she had never complained about Seles in their previous 11 matches, Navratilova steamed.
"Am I on trial or is grunting on trial?" Navratilova said. "You sound like I am making sour grapes. I wasn't complaining after I lost the first set. I wasn't trying to get her off-balance or do any gamesmanship on my part. If it bothers the opponent, then it is up to the umpire. The player doesn't necessarily have to say anything."
When she lost in Paris, Graf didn't say anything about Seles' grunts, which by the end of the third set were louder than any of her screams yesterday. Looking for her fourth Wimbledon title, Graf is well aware of the issue it has become.
"It has always been an issue, but it's the first time the umpires react to it, that you can do something really against it," said Graf, who officially began the gamesmanship for tomorrow's final. "I mean, there are times when it gets close, she really gets loud."
Sabatini, seeded third, didn't get loud or close yesterday. She played an exciting match in the final last year against Graf -- Sabatini served twice for the championship before losing 8-6 in the third -- but this time the 21-year-old Argentine went down meekly.
The tone was set when Sabatini was broken early in the first set. The only chance for Sabatini came in the final game, when she fought off six break points serving at 3-5. But Graf didn't provide any further opportunities, hitting a forehand crosscourt past Sabatini at the net.
"I think I was really going for my shots," said Graf, 23. "I'm really going for my forehands. So, yes, I feel pretty good."
Asked if she will change her strategy from clay to grass against Seles, Graf said, "I think quite similar play as I did today. I think when I have the chance I will try to come in. I mean, if I see a chance, I'll try."
One more question, Steffi?
Might you complain, if Monica's grunting gets too loud?
"I don't know," she said. "I don't know."
Bank on it.
Women's final matchup
The head-to-head matchup for the Wimbledon women's finals:
Seles vs. Graf
(Graf leads 5-3)
1989: French Open, semifinal, Graf, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.
1989: Wimbledon, 4th, Graf, 6-0, 6-1.
1989: Brighton, final, Graf, 7-5, 6-4.
1990: Berlin, final, Seles, 6-4, 6-3.
1990: French Open, final, Seles, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4.
1991: U.S. Hardcourts, final, Graf, 6-4, 6-3.
1991: Hamburg, final, Graf, 7-5, 6-7 (4-7), 6-3.
1992: French Open, final, Seles, 6-2, 3-6, 10-8.