For Zina Garrison and Kathy Rinaldi, this was a day to remember. Onto Centre Court at Wimbledon they walked, curtsying to the Duke of Kent, drinking in the warm applause coming from the 15,000 packed into the old green stadium.
They were in the semifinals of Wimbledon, walking side by side with two of the greats of the game, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd. Neither player had more than a tiny glimmer of a chance to win.
But they were there. "I had trouble," Rinaldi said later with a giggle, "with my curtsy."
She had more trouble with Evert, who made brief work of her in a 6-2, 6-0 rout. Garrison pushed Navratilova into a second-set tie breaker, losing, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3), and left feeling satisfied that she had justified her presence in the match and made up for an embarrassing Centre Court performance here one year ago.
But when the warm, humid afternoon was over, the bottom line was the same: Evert and Navratilova will play Saturday for the championship (9 a.m., WRC-TV-4). It will be their fifth Wimbledon final, their 12th Grand Slam final and the 15th straight Grand Slam tournament, dating to the 1981 U.S. Open, won by one or the other.
Their meeting has been inevitable since the tournament began. Today merely made it official.
"We're so close right now," Evert said, "that it might come down to who is having their day."
This day was the Fourth of July, four U.S. women playing at the All England Club with Bruce Springsteen, here for four concerts, among those watching on as beautiful an afternoon as one can imagine.
Garrison, all grace and fluent ease, played about as well as she could have hoped to, zinging winners past Navratilova often enough to push her, but not nearly often enough to scare her. Rinaldi, who remembers seeing Evert play when she was 6 (she's now 18), plays almost the same style as Evert. She just doesn't play it as well.
"Her strength is return of serve and her passing shots," Evert said. "I didn't give her much of a target. I just did everything a little better."
The same could be said of Navratilova-Garrison. A year ago, Garrison fell apart on the Centre Court in a second-round loss to Virginia Wade. She not only lost the match but her composure, weeping on court as a lead slipped away from her.
Today, though, she was resolute from the start, breaking Navratilova in the second game of the match with a sparkling backhand down the line for a 2-0 lead. If she had bad memories or jitters, they didn't show.
"I don't think anything will ever erase the memories of last year's match," she said. "But I thought I handled myself a lot better this year and that meant a lot to me, basically for my self-improvement. I got a lot of fan mail from all over the world where people said they were really behind me last year. Some people said they actually cried when I was crying on the court. Others said don't give up."
Garrison, 21 and ranked No. 8 in the world, certainly didn't give up today. Reaching the semifinals is a major boost because her record in Grand Slam events the last two years has been atrocious, culminating with a second-round loss in the French Open a month ago.
She still has not won a set from Navratilova in 10 matches. But today she was competitive. "I thought she played well," Navratilova said. "I didn't serve as well as I would have liked, but she was making me work out there. It wasn't easy."
The fact that it took 1 hour 27 minutes is an indication of that. Navratilova was always in control, but never overwhelmed Garrison. From 0-2 down, she won five straight games in the first set, winning 16 of 19 points during one stretch.
But Garrison plugged her way back into the match. She broke Navratilova in the eighth game with the shot of the day, running down an overhead and smacking it down the line for a winner. She held to trail, 5-4, and had Navratilova 15-30 in the next game.
That was when the five-time champion said "enough." She crushed a first serve that Garrison barely touched. She followed another serve and Garrison netted a backhand pass. Finally, she snapped in another serve and that was the set.
Normally when players lose a tough first set to Navratilova, they do a disappearing act. Garrison did not. She lost her serve in the third game, gallantly saving four break points before Navratilova converted the fifth with a crackling backhand pass down the line.
That made it 2-1, Navratilova. Still, Garrison didn't fold. She broke right back at love, timing Navratilova's second serve for backhand winners on the last two points.
"I thought I played well in the second set," Garrison said. "I served well, especially my second serve. I was able to keep it deep and not get in to trouble on it. That kept me in the match."
Garrison hung in the match, the two advancing on serve into the tie breaker. Unfortunately for Garrison, getting into a tie breaker with Navratilova usually is a futile gesture. Her record in them during the last three years is 22-2.
Today was no different. Navratilova started with a gorgeous cross-court forehand. She then whacked an overhead, served a winner and delicately landed a lob on the line for a 4-0 lead. Each shot was a little better than the last.
Garrison did save two match points at 6-1 but netted a backhand return on the third one. It was, as the BBC would say, "well-tried," but of course, not enough.
"It was a good mental match for me because I had to play good, solid tennis," Navratilova said. "She hit some phenomenal shots on the run. She just goes for broke. But I never felt overpowered or in danger."
Evert certainly wasn't going to be overpowered by Rinaldi. She is the last of the Chrissie-clones who began playing professionally very young -- 14 in her case -- and has managed to survive the burnout dangers that have hit so many other very young players. But her base line game isn't as good as Evert's base line game. And that's the only way she can play.
"It wasn't like she could suddenly pull a serve-and-volley game out of a hat," Evert said.
For three games, Rinaldi matched Evert, ground stroke for ground stroke. They played three deuces in the first game before Rinaldi held; four in the second before Evert held, and four in the third before Evert broke. Twenty-four minutes, 40 points and each woman came to net once.
But Evert was in command. Her only real problem was with base line judge David Lockie, who in the third game three times called balls good that Evert thought long. That problem was resolved when umpire Richard Lumb moved Lockie to a different spot.
After double-faulting to lose that third game, Rinaldi seemed to lose some of her pugnacity. Her whistling ground strokes began spraying. Evert, resolute as ever, pounded away. She ran out the first set, 6-2, and made short work of the second. It was over in 22 minutes, Evert dropping 10 points as Rinaldi made 21 forced errors.
Evert ended the match with an ace, then graciously gave Rinaldi some counsel on curtsying as they left the court.
"I didn't go out there thinking I couldn't win," Rinaldi said. "I tried to approach it just like all my other matches here. But she was just too good for me. She's playing great tennis right now."
That also sums up women's tennis. Navratilova and Evert are just too good for everyone else. Saturday, they meet for the 66th time (Navratilova leads, 33-32) in one of the great rivalries in sport.