Graf, wanting a push, gets wish WIMBLEDON


WIMBLEDON, England -- Steffi Graf said she needed some competition, needed a little push to raise her game after beating all the scared kids, overmatched veterans and other hangers-on of the women's tour.

Well, it took nearly two weeks, but Graf got a challenge in the Wimbledon semifinals yesterday.

Jana Novotna gave Graf 2 hours and 10 minutes of tennis torment. She gave Graf junk balls up the middle, dragged her kicking and screaming to the net, even made her lose her first set in the tournament.

"I was really thinking, 'I'm going to lose this match,' " Graf said.

And then, Graf showed everyone that, when pushed, she can shove back, that, when forced to come up with a little magic, she still can wave her racket around and win magnificently, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2.

"I think I got a lot of pleasure out of winning this," Graf said. "Obviously, because it was a close match, because I made it, because I turned it around from a set down."

The five-time champ is in her seventh Wimbledon final. %o Tomorrow, she'll meet a familiar foe, Aranxta Sanchez Vicario.

Sanchez Vicario reached her first Wimbledon final by defeating reigning champion Conchita Martinez, 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1, in a match that was so slow and passionless, it could have been played on Spanish red clay instead of English grass.

But give Martinez credit: She wouldn't relinquish her title without a fight, and she refused to hobble off the court despite bloody blisters on both feet.

Graf also would not go. At least, not against Novotna, whose worst Wimbledon moment occurred in the 1993 final, when she was five points from victory over Graf, but folded in the clutch.

This time, Novotna did not choke. Sure, she only converted six of 20 break points, but Graf had a lot to do with that.

"This is the way I wanted to play for a long, long time," Novotna said. "It was one of the best matches I played against Steffi since the 1993 Wimbledon final. It was very exciting.

"I enjoyed every minute of it. I was also happy to provide some excitement for the spectators and the public."

It was about time. This was the challenge that Graf has yearned for, the reason why she has made public declarations to help get Monica Seles back on tour.

And she was pushed, all right. In fact, she was battered in the first set. And she hung on with guts and forehands in an 18-point service game in the second set, chipping away at Novotna's serves for a couple of breaks before slamming a forehand winner even the match.

The third set was dramatic, too, with long rallies and short tempers. But it was Novotna who cracked, who lost her last two service games, who saw the match end as Graf slammed one last forehand winner down the line.

"She was delighted the match was behind her," Novotna said. "You could see how relieved she was."

The relief showed on Graf's smiling face. It also came through loud and clear at her post-match news conference.

"Things didn't look very good for quite some time," Graf said. "Obviously, I'm extremely happy to turn it around."

Sanchez Vicario also was relieved to get past Martinez. Sanchez Vicario said she was growing a little tired of hearing how, because Martinez could win Wimbledon, she was out to prove that she could overcome the grass-court challenge.

"She is Conchita, I am Aranxta," Sanchez Vicario said sharply.

Next question.

"It's a dream come true for me to make the final," Sanchez Vicario said. "I'm very excited. I have nothing to lose."

Sanchez Vicario's nerves frayed a bit in the second set when she was up 5-2 and couldn't serve out the match. But by the final set, Sanchez Vicario was running down everything, and Martinez, bloody blisters and all, couldn't move.

"You just have to play with pain," Martinez said.

Martinez lost her title in a hurry and quickly packed her bags and moved off the court. She may not have been Wimbledon's most popular champion, but she gave her all in defending the title.

have many years to come back and try to win it again," she said.

FTC But this year, it comes down to Graf and Sanchez Vicario.

Who will win?

"I think it's open," Martinez said.

Even Graf is taking nothing for granted. She may have all the shots with which to blitz Sanchez Vicario on grass, but Novotna showed just how vulnerable she can be.

"One thing I'm not going to do is feel I'm the absolute favorite," Graf said. "I don't feel like that at all right now."

PD It's amazing what a little competition can do in women's tennis.


Doubles semifinal

Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde (2), Australia, def. Mark Knowles, Bahamas, and Daniel Nestor (11), Canada, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.


Singles semifinals

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2), Spain, def. Conchita Martinez (3), Spain, 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1. Steffi Graf (1), Germany, def. Jana Novotna (4), Czech Republic, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2.

Mixed doubles


Mark Woodforde, Australia, and Larisa Neiland (1), Latvia, def. Andrew Florent and Catherine Barclay, Australia, 6-2, 6-1.


Centre Court

Goran Ivanisevic (4), Croatia, vs. Pete Sampras (2), Tampa, Fla. Andre Agassi (1), Las Vegas, vs. Boris Becker (3), Germany.

Court 1

Gigi Fernandez, Aspen, Colo., and Natasha Zvereva (1), Belarus, vs. Meredith McGrath, Midland, Mich., and Larisa Neiland (5), Latvia. Gabriela Sabatini, Argentina, and Brenda Schultz-McCarthy (9), Netherlands, vs. Jana Novotna, Czech Republic, and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2), Spain. Rick Leach, Laguna Beach, Calif., and Scott Melville, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., vs. Marc Goellner, Germany, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov (14), Russia. Mark Woodforde, Australia, and Larisa Neiland, Latvia, vs. Jonathan Stark, Seattle, and Martina Navratilova, Aspen, Colo.

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