Much of Kevin Curren is, or was, Texas big. His serve, his tendency to wilt against the elite of tennis, his troubles caused by the intrusion of politics into sport. No y'alls in his conversation, even while he was living in Willie Nelson's town and winning the NCAA singles title for the Longhorns.

Curren got from South Africa to Austin for the same reason linebackers get there from Southeast Washington. Probably, he would not have gotten to the semifinals at Wimbledon today if it hadn't been for that deep heart-to-heart in Brussels back in March.

"Unbelievable talent," his coach, Warren Jacques, said after Curren's 4-6, 7-6, 6-2, 7-6 victory over Tim Mayotte on Centre Court. "But every time he'd go against one of the top three to six players in the world, he never felt he could win.

"All he wanted was to go out there and just play a good match."

All that changed when Curren, Australian Jacques and an honest-to-Miss-Ellie Texan, Steve Denton, got together and volleyed a few thoughts.

"Steve doesn't have near as much talent," Jacques said, "but he thinks he can beat anybody."

Thinking like Denton and playing like himself, Curren beat Jimmy Connors in Brussels. That felt so invigorating, he stepped onto Court 2 here Monday and stunned the second-seeded Jimbo in four sets.

Today was both easier and harder.

"A bit flat," he admitted. "Beating Connors took a lot out of me."

But not so much that anyone outside the lines could notice. This was a match insiders very likely savored more than casual fans, it being between players who actually live up to what Wimbledon advertises as "gentlemen's singles."

For about three hours, you could watch wonderful tennis and feel neither obliged to diaper nor spank anyone.

For Mayotte, the problem was the 6-foot-1 Curren's serve. It's swift enough so that an opponent might recall an old-time baseball tale and say to a line judge: "That sounded out."

"But every time you go on the court these days, it seems," Mayotte said, "it seems like somebody's breaking the sound barrier."

It was Mayotte doing most of the early breaking today. Curren had gone 69 games in four matches here without dropping serve, firing 58 aces in the process. Mayotte stopped that streak three games into the first set. Curren helped with a double fault and Mayotte took the game with a hard backhand after keeping a first serve in play.

The gray afternoon seemed Mayotte's, until "those intangible decisions that, for whatever reasons, turn the match. He seemed to be waiting for some of my shots. I don't know."

Having won the first set, he again broke Curren and was serving for the second set at 5-4. And couldn't hold, hitting long from near the net after a brief fight from triple break point.

Curren won the tie breaker, with some big serves, some big returns and one tiny bit of luck. Once, he was flat on the sacred grass after a lunging volley and Mayotte needed only to tap the ball across the net from the baseline to win the point.

He didn't.

They got into another tie breaker in the fourth set, after Mayotte again failed to sustain break prosperity serving for the match. This time, Curren was dreaming too grandly too quickly. Up a triple-match and serving, he lost the next two points.

"Started thinking about the situation," he admitted. "That I had it. I had a little bit of trouble serving there."

Next time was different.

Mayotte barely touched that later match-point blast, and Curren took a lob-high leap in celebration.

"I was mad on that serve," he said. "I'd learned my lesson. I was thinking about the point instead of being ahead."

The Connors slayer now faces lightly regarded Chris Lewis of New Zealand in the semis Friday. If he's learned that one-point-at-a-time lesson, Curren ought to be in Sunday's final against either Ivan Lendl or John McEnroe.

"He's shown he can beat anybody in the world," said Mayotte, 22 and almost inspirationally mature by current tennis standards. "Now it's a matter of doing it in this context, with the Wimbledon title at stake.

"It takes time to be a great player, but sometimes the media doesn't always give him time. They pick on something a player can't do. It takes a while for the mental part to catch up.

"Physically, Curren's there."

Mentally, Curren is not sure what to do with his citizenship. If he stays a South African, he risks being banned in more than the few countries that now refuse to let him play because of his government's apartheid policies.

"But he dearly loves South Africa," said Jacques. "He wants to own a game farm there. A reserve. That's what his goal is. That shows how he wants to stick by South Africa."

Still, the most recent concern was the attack of Rocky Mountain spotted fever he picked up with a tick bite at Hilton Head nine weeks ago. That'll do a man in as quickly as Connors.

"Took all his strength," Jacques said. "He could only play for about an hour at times. Set back his Wimbledon preparations. That and going on a three-week photographic safari in the jungle. He was a little patchy the first two rounds here.

"Then he started clicking against (Rodney) Harmon, and played really well against Connors. He honestly feels he can beat 'em all now. He's rated 15th now. Our goal is to be in the top 10 by the U.S. Open. We just might make it before then."