The yellow ball looked as big as a basketball as it came off the clay, and seemed to be drawn like a magnet to Elise Burgin's racket. As she had done all day with great success, Burgin drew her left arm back, certain she was about to whip a forehand shot past Hana Mandlikova.
But just when the ball should have been whizzing past Mandlikova, just when Burgin should have been walking to her chair with a 5-2 lead in the final set and the cries of the crowd at Roland Garros' center court ringing in her ears, the ball, instead, was slapping the net.
"Against a player like Hana," Burgin said, "you can't let an opportunity like that get away." Today, it did.
Burgin, a 23-year-old from Baltimore, led Mandlikova -- the No. 3 seed in the French Open -- 3-0 in the last set and 4-2 when she botched the easy forehand. Given that tiny opening, Mandlikova revived and survived, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5.
"She played very well," Mandlikova said, her hands bleeding from several dives and her dress stained with red clay. "I just kept fighting. It paid off."
While Mandlikova was fighting off what would have have been the biggest upset of this tournament, two other high seeds were not as lucky. Fifth-seeded Helena Sukova lost to Christiane Jolissaint, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0, and, in the late afternoon sunlight, No. 6 seed Zina Garrison wilted in the face of strong pressure from Rosalyn Fairbank, 7-6 (7-4), 2-6, 13-11.
Chris Evert Lloyd, the No. 2 seed, also advanced, but encountered the tough opposition she had expected from Lisa Bonder. The score was 7-5, 6-3.
In Berlin last week, Bonder took the first set against Evert, who rallied to win. This time, Evert was better prepared.
Bonder, who rallied from 1-5 in the opening set, said: "This time, she started off stronger. She was really aggressive and ran me around."
Among the men's seeds, top-seeded John McEnroe, No. 4 Mats Wilander, No. 5 Andres Gomez, No. 7 Joakim Nystrom, No. 9 Yannick Noah, No. 10 Henrik Sundstrom and No. 13 Tomas Smid all won, with only Sundstrom and Smid dropping as much as a set.
Wilander was particularly impressive, routing Boris Becker, a rising young player, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1. Wilander turned what was supposed to be the match of the day into a 95-minute clinic that may have demonstrated to the teen-ager that he isn't quite ready for the big boys.
"It was probably my best match of the year," Wilander said. "I just felt very good out there."
McEnroe, playing late for the second straight day, defeated another qualifier, Florin Segarceaunu, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4.
The French are not enamored of women's tennis. Often, the women's final here is played with the stadium half full. But of the fans who showed up today for the Mandlikova-Burgin match, few found it one they could walk away from.
"It hurts to lose like this because I had a golden opportunity," said Burgin. "I mean you just don't know if you'll ever have another chance to win a match like this in the French Open. It was so close. But once she got 4-all (in the last set), she really played well."
Indeed. Having survived 4-2, Mandlikova broke for 4-all and then had three match points with Burgin serving at 0-40 in the 10th game. Burgin managed to save all three before finally falling.
"I expected a tough match, but not that tough," Mandlikova said.
Mandlikova admitted she was less than steady when she squandered four match points in the final set. "I became a little nervous because she was taking a really long time between serves -- a little too long, I thought. But I finished the set with confidence."
Burgin was making her first appearance on center court in the French championships. But she appeared confident.
"I didn't let the ambiance get to me," she said. "I went out there to win."
The match between Fairbank and Garrison lasted 3 hours and 27 minutes. With Garrison leading, 6-5, in the third set, Fairbank saved match point and then won the game. After trading games, Fairbank had two match points at 8-7.
Garrison rallied to save both points and stayed alive until the 24th game. At 30-40, she lost the point, set and match.