It was a day of high drama on Centre Court at Wimbledon as the sun came out and four sometimes-inspired women tranformed the world's premier tennis championships from gray to glittering colors.
Martina Navratilova, gunning to become the first woman to win three successive singles titles here since her doubles partner, Billie Jean King, in 1966-67-68, beat the grande dame, King 7-6, 1-6, 10-8, in a quarterfinal match of abruptly shifting fortunes and flinty combativeness.
Then, Evonne Goolagong Crawley, who first captivated Winbledon with her grace and sunny disposition when she won here at age 19 in 1971, reached the singles final for the fifth time -- the first since 1976 -- with an unexpected and equally thrilling victory over Tracy Austin, 6-3, 0-6, 6-4.
After days of chilly rain and wind that robbed the players of their rhythym and the tournament of any sense of continuity -- making the tennis seem rather joyless even when it was good -- the sun seemed to breathe new life and warmth into the game.
The schedule remained a shambles, and the referee's judgement was criticized from many quarters, but the day's activity provided a feast, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Brian Gottfried all played well to reach the men's semifinals, and Jimmy Connors struggled into the quarters, but the afternoon belonged once again to the women.
The drama began shortly after noon when Navratilova, 23, and King, 36 -- similarly aggreessive pesonalities with explosive serve-and-volley games ideally suited to grass court tennis -- resumed a match that had been suspended overnight after Navratilova won a first-set tie breaker in a driving rainstorm.
This figured to be agrand test of wills and net-rushing skills, but no one could have anticipated the wild twists and turns and fluctuations in the standard of play that transpired before Navratilova cracked a winning forehand return of serve on her ninth match point, after King had broken her glasses a few minutes earlier.
King, furious at the umpire for letting the tie breaker go on in the rain Tuesday night and at herself for losing it after leading, 5 points to 1, played an almost flawless second set.
She got to 3-3, 0-40 on Navratilova's serve, but lost that game with what she called "the biggest choke in the world." She served for the match at 6-5, and choked again. But when behind, both women were as sublime as they were ridiculous when ahead. King saved eight match points in three different games, putting good first serves on all of them, before Navratilova finally seized a match so tense that it had her heart thumping loudly in her chest.
Could anthing top that for theater? Well, yes, as it turned out. Googlagong's popular victory over Austin, the 17-year-old reigning U.S. Open champion who had won six of her last seven tournaments and 31 of 32 matches coming into Wimbledon, provided exquisite tennis and another deliciously uncertain finish.
If Navratilova-King was steel flashing against steel, the first of the women's semifinals (Navratilova will play Chris Evert Lloyd in the other Thursday) had its share of gossamer.
For 1 hour 47 minutes, Goolagong and Austin used the entire court and a good deal of the air above it in a succession of lovely points. At times, it seemed as if the object were not so much to keep the ball in play as to hit the lines with it, so often did they raise puffs of chalk in this enchanting match.
In the first set, Goolagong played about as well as she can, changing length and pace and spin on her shots masterfully to beat Austin at her own game, from the baseline.
But Austin was scrambling and lobbing so well that she eventually took control of the tempo in the second set, and ran Goolagong ragged, scampering and hammering until the Australian became tired and erratic.
It seemed certain then that Austin would win, especially when she led, 1-0, 30-40, in the final set. But Goolagong changed her tactics. Getting her first serve in court with a consistency she lacked in the second set, she started coming to the net relentlessly, behind serves and superb sliced approach shots.
Astonishingly, Austin, a grim and tenacious competitor, cracked and started spraying the ball until she trailed 4-1. Then she won eight of nine points to 3-4 and put the pressure back on Goolagong.
The lithe, 28-year-old Australian, runner-up in three Winbledons and four U.S. Opens, responded with championship character that has seldom complemented her charm and talent. In her last two service games -- with the match clearly on the line -- she missed only two first serves and played bold, dreamlike tennis.
Austin did have one point to brak back to 5-5, at 30-40. A good serve down the middle forced a forehand return error. Deuce. Another good serve, and Goolagong drilled a forehand, down-the-line winner off the short return. Match point.
The applause of the 14,000 onlookers at Centre Court was being echoed now by the thousands amassed in the concourse outside the vine-covered walls, who were following the match through the numbers flashing on an electric scoreboard -- a unique Winbledon phenomenon and a sure-fire sign that a match has gripped everyone at the All England Club.
Goolagong took a deep breath. Austin bounced up and down in a charateristic series of little hops as she waited to return serve.
Crack, another great serve bit deep into the turf and Austin netted a hard forehand return. Goolagong, whose 3-year-old daughter Kelly was watching all this on television, was the first mother to reach a Winbledon final since Dorothea Lambert Chambers in 1920.
The spine-tingling women's matches clearly overshadowed today's men's singles, which weren't as close. But they had their moments.
Borg, striving for his fifth successive singles title, was down a set point in the first set as Gene Mayer, the No. 6 seed and possibly the most underrated player in the world, served at 5-4, 40-30. Mayer hit a first serve to the backhand, and Borg rifled a scorching, cross-court return winner.
"That was a very big point. I hit a very good backhand, and started playing better after that," said Borg, who ran out a more-difficult-than-the-scores-would-imply victory, 7-5, 6-3, 7-5.
Borg took a nasty tumble in the first game of the second set, losing his footing as he swooped in to cover a drop shot. When he untangled himself, he seemed to move gingerly on his right ankle. He double-faulted on the next two points to lose his serve, and lost a total of six points in a row. "He was all right," noted venerable British Tennis writer Lance Tingay, "but I suspect his agent was having a heart attack."
Borg shook off the effects of the spill promptly and ran like a deer in completing his 33rd consecutive singles victory at Wimbledon. Mayer, who hits both forehand and backhand two-fisted and has wonderful touch with his oversized racket, played some sweet shots, but didn't have enough weight of shot. Borg is so quick he ran down everything, and his serve and passing shots were clearly superior.
McEnroe, seeded No. 2 and expected to give Borg a stern test if he can get by the Connors-Roscoe Tanner winner in the semifinals, was in good form in beating his doubles partner, Peter Fleming, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
Fleming is 6-foot-5, with very long arms. He has a mighty serve, so as McEnroe noted, "He has the potential to play very well on grass." But today he didn't move well. He was stiff and uncertain. McEnroe exploited this with touch and quickness, and was self-assured in his own serve-and-volley style.
No one has served and volleyed as consistently well at this Wimbledon, however, as Gottfried, who has not lost a set in five matches, reaching the semi-finals for the first time. He never lost his serve today in ousting Wojtek Fibak, conqueror of Vitas Gerulaitis Tuesday, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2.
Gottfried, who hasn't been on Centre Court yet this fortnight, will play Borg there Thursday. McEnroe will have a day of rest -- a bit of an unfair advantage occasioned by the curious scheduling -- as Connors plays Tanner, last year's runner-up, for the last place in the men's semi-finals.
Connors was leading, 6-4, 5-5, in a fourth-round match against Hank Pfister when rain and gathering darkness forced a suspension Tuesday night. Connors had blown a 4-1 lead in the second set, and today lost it in a tie breaker, 7 points to 4.
Perhaps the most critical point came as Pfister started serving for the fourth set at 5-3. He made two diving volleys, but Connors dinked a winner beyond another lunge. Discouraged and winded, Pfister played a bad game to lose his advantage.
"I think that was pretty much the whole game there. He might have gotten a little tired, a little upset, losing that point after all his acrobatics," said Connors, who was pleased with his form even though he served poorly. "That point kind of pumped me up, too, and gave me confidence. I got a lot of returns in play after that, had chances to break at 6-5, and played a very good tie breaker."
Connors, who will have had to play every day if he makes it to Saturday's final, was justifiably annoyed at the scheduling. "I'll either be in great shape or dead," he said. "It's not my fault that I'm a round behind. It's rough, with all the rain they had, but I must say it might have been smarter to put our three-of-five-set match on Tuesday before a two-of-three women's match."
The scheduling has been bad. The playing conditions at times have been, as Connors put it, "just brutal." But today's matches -- particularly the Goolagong-Austin jewel -- reaffirmed that when the sun shines, Wimbledon can be a joyous place, indeed.