WIMBLEDON, England -- There was Gabriela Sabatini, crouched low, glaring across the net. She was hopping back and forth -- right foot, left foot -- a sentry on guard, waiting to volley.
Having lost the first set to defending Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez yesterday and down 5-1 in the second set, Sabatini scrapped her normal game -- passive junkballs with topspin -- and went straight to the net.
And she began knocking off the volleys. Forehand volleys. Backhand volleys. Half-volleys. Chip volleys.
For the next seven games, she and Martinez played the best women's tennis seen at Wimbledon this year.
With Sabatini at the net, Martinez was forced to be creative. She needed to hit her crosscourt passing shot, and she had to try some lobs. And she made her serve craftier by moving it around.
Sabatini used her backhand to slice deeper and deeper, giving her a chance to come to the net. Sometimes the volleys were winners, sometimes they went into the net.
However, Sabatini, the No. 8 seed, couldn't quite overcome her poor start in the second set, and Martinez, the No. 3 seed, won the match, 7-5, 7-6 (7-5).
The Centre Court match turned out to be, by far, the best of the day's women's quarterfinal offerings.
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the No. 2 seed, got behind a service break to Brenda Schultz-McCarthy in each set but managed to beat the No. 15 seed, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4).
Jana Novotna, the No. 4 seed, sent two volleys into the net on match point, but converted the third to knock out Japan's first women's Wimbledon quarterfinalist, sixth-seeded Kimiko Date, 6-2, 6-3.
And top seed Steffi Graf played a self-described "perfect" second set to crush the last American women's player, No. 13 seed Mary Joe Fernandez, 6-3, 6-0.
Sabatini is unpredictable, to say the least. The 25-year-old from Argentina has the ability to play elegant tennis -- at her best, her shots spin and tumble in the air like acrobats. She has a grunt that accompanies her strokes, and the apparent effort draws a crowd to her side.
When all her spinning balls land in the court, Sabatini can be very hard to beat. When the balls don't spin or twist or dip quite enough, she can be run off the court. Lately, that has been happening often, and her ranking and confidence have fallen.
Until yesterday, Martinez had been cruising through the draw. After each match, she has smiled, nodded and said the same thing: "I am playing very good."
bTC This is how Martinez likes it. She is not like Graf, who enjoys being tested.
Sabatini had squandered a 4-1 first-set lead, pushing balls wide and long. Martinez was pulverizing her in the second set, so Sabatini scrapped her normal tactics.
The switch had immediate results. When Sabatini tied the set at 5, with a low-scooting volley, Martinez shouted and slammed her racket into the ground. It bounced and nearly hit her in the head.
But Martinez then picked up her game. Her backhand passing shot, which had knocked Navratilova off the net last year, began hitting the sidelines and forcing Sabatini back to the baseline.
Sabatini can't hit as hard as Martinez from there, and the inevitable happened. Martinez started hitting winners.
Meanwhile, Graf, the five-time Wimbledon winner, won the last nine games of her match with Fernandez.
Afterward, somebody asked Graf, "By your standards, how good was that second set?"
Graf's answer: "Perfect. I felt I could do anything I wanted to. It felt incredible being out there. I just wanted to keep smiling constantly, I enjoyed it so much."
Graf will play Novotna in one semifinal tomorrow.
Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde (2), Australia, def. Mark Philippoussis and Patrick Rafter, Australia, 6-2, 1-6, 6-2, 7-6 (9-7). Marc Goellner, Germany, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov (14), Russia, def. Andrei Olhovskiy, Russia, and Jan Siemerink (12), Netherlands, 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (3-7), 6-3, 6-4. Rick Leach, Laguna Beach, Calif., and Scott Melville, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., def. Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis (1), Netherlands, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5). Mark Knowles, Bahamas, and Daniel Nestor (11), Canada, def. Guy Forget, France, and Jakob Hlasek, Switzerland, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2), Spain, def. Brenda Schultz-McCarthy (15), Netherlands, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4). Conchita Martinez (3), Spain, def. Gabriela Sabatini (8), Argentina, 7-5, 7-6 (7-5). Jana Novotna (4), Czech Republic, def. Kimiko Date (6), Japan, 6-2, 6-3. Steffi Graf (1), Germany, def. Mary Joe Fernandez (13), Key Biscayne, Fla., 6-3, 6-0.
Doubles third round
Nicole Arendt, Gainesville, Fla., and Pam Shriver (8), Baltimore, def. Radka Bobkova, Czech Republic, and Maaike Koutstaal, Netherlands, 6-3, 7-5. Amy Frazier, Rochester Hills, Mich., and Kimberly Po, Rolling Hills, Calif., def. Anna-Maria Cecchini, Italy, and Isabelle Demongeot, France, 7-5, 6-1. Gabriela Sabatini, Argentina, and Brenda Schultz-McCarthy (9), Netherlands, def. Julie Halard, Nathalie Tauziat (10), France, 6-2, 6-4. Jana Novotna, Czech Republic, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2), Spain, def. Katrina Adams, Houston, Zina Garrison-Jackson (14), Houston, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
Mixed doubles third round
Tom Nijssen, Netherlands, and Claudia Porwik, Germany, def. Pablo Albano and Mercedes Paz, Argentina, 7-6 (11-9), 6-2. Grant Connell, Canada, and Lindsay Davenport (2), Murrieta, Calif., def. Brett Steven, New Zealand, and Nicole Bradtke (10), Australia, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3. Mark Petchey and Clare Wood, Britain, def. T. J. Middleton, Atlanta, and Lori McNeil, Houston, 6-4, 7-5. Cyril Suk, Czech Republic, and Gigi Fernandez (4), Aspen, Colo., def. Dick Norman and Sabine Appelmans, Belgium, 6-4, 6-3. Sandon Stolle, Australia, and Mary Joe Fernandez (9), Key Biscayne, Fla., def. Brian MacPhie, San Jose, Calif., and Linda Harvey-Wild, Hawthorn Woods, Ill., 6-4, 7-6 (7-4). Jonathan Stark, Seattle, and Martina Navratilova (3), Aspen, Colo., def. Rick Leach, Laguna Beach, Calif., and Natasha Zvereva (12), Belarus, 6-3, 6-3. Mark Woodforde, Australia, and Larisa Neiland (1), Latvia, def. Brent Haygarth, South Africa, and Christina Singer, Germany, 6-4, 7-5.
* Andre Agassi (1), Las Vegas, vs. Jacco Eltingh, Netherlands.
* Yevgeny Kafelnikov (6), Russia, vs. Goran Ivanisevic (4), Croatia.
* Shuzo Matsuoka, Japan, vs. Pete Sampras (2), Tampa, Fla.
* Boris Becker (3), Germany, vs. Cedric Pioline, France.
Today's TV: 10 a.m., chs. 11 and 4; noon, HBO.