PARIS, JUNE 4 -- For Gabriela Sabatini, there was much to take solace in today. She had played superb tennis and frightened her opponent. She had won the crowd if not the match. And, there is always next year.
For Chris Evert, there was no such consolation. Her tennis was not very good. Her opponent felt more sorry for her than anything else. And, for her, there may not be a next year.
Evert's departure from the French Open was as stunning as Sabatini's was dramatic. Evert, the seven-time champion, was routed by Martina Navratilova, 6-2, 6-2, in a semifinal match that lasted 73 minutes. That was half as long as it took Steffi Graf to beat Sabatini, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5.
Graf, 11 months older than Sabatini, is the youngest woman to reach a French Open final. She has won 38 straight matches since losing the Virginia Slims championships final to Navratilova in November.
Both matches were delayed by rain on yet another day of fluky Parisian weather, sunny one minute, rainy the next. The 80-minute delay in Graf-Sabatini gave the two 17-year-olds a chance to catch their breath in the tense third set; the 40-minute stoppage during Evert-Navratilova merely postponed the end.
"I'm really not sure what happened because I haven't had a chance to think about it yet," said Evert, confused and upset. "Maybe I didn't think about the match enough. I'd been hitting the ball well and I thought I could go out and just do that again. But playing Martina is different than playing base liners. I kept trying to go for winners because I didn't want to be tentative and I was missing."
Missing in a way Evert almost never misses. Approach shots sailed long, backhands went wide, forehands cracked the net tape. Navratilova led, 6-2, 5-0, and had two match points before Evert salvaged a tiny piece of pride by saving those points and getting to 5-2. It was so bad that in this, their 72nd meeting (Navratilova leads, 38-34), Navratilova found her mind wandering, her thoughts turning to Evert near the end of the match.
"I couldn't help myself there near the end," she said. "I was trying to end the match and I caught myself thinking, 'My God, I'm glad it's not me losing like this, but I know how bad she's going to feel.' And then I began to think that I know I'll be here next year but Chris might not be. So, I started thinking, 'Is this the end for Chris at the French?'
"She and I have been back and forth and back and forth. We've cried in the locker room together after matches. What can I say? I feel for her."
There were no tears today, though, because the match actually became comical. The only people in Paris who missed more shots than Evert today were the line judges. Fortunately, their incompetence had no effect on the outcome of the match, but the second set was marred by a barrage of overrules and incorrect calls and discussions between the players about botched calls.
The constant delays gave the match a surreal atmosphere, a stark contrast to some of the masterpieces these two women have put together in the past.
"I didn't go out there exactly jumping up and down to play, and I'm not sure why," Evert said. "Usually, we're both really psyched up and nervous when we play and I didn't feel either. Maybe it was the weather. I really don't know. All I know is she was the better player today. I got beat fair and square."
Sabatini may have lost fair and square, but she must have gone home wondering who the better player was. The two women -- "the next No. 1 and No. 2," as Evert put it today -- already have played seven times, even though Sabatini has just turned 17 and Graf is 10 days shy of 18. Sabatini has yet to win, but she certainly has come close. Today was another example.
She roared out at the start of the match, winning the first eight points before Graf had a chance to blink. But Graf righted herself and worked her way into the set. She broke back to get even at 3-all, then broke again on her fifth set point to take the set, 6-4.
Sabatini has a reputation for tiring in the third set, so losing the first was not a good sign for her. Three weeks ago in Rome, she split sets with Graf and lost the third, 6-0. But she was hanging in throughout the match, moving Graf around with ground strokes that are almost as explosive as Graf's.
"She really was playing well today," Graf said. "I never could get control of the match. A lot of the time I felt like she was controlling me. She was very hard to play right until the end."
They split breaks at 1-all in the second and held serve to 3-3. Then, in one of the best games of the match, they played four deuces. Twice, Graf saved break points. But on the third, Sabatini hit a forehand that landed on the base line. Graf played it, hit a forehand that went long and then argued the call on Sabatini's shot.
The argument got her nowhere and Sabatini led, 4-3. She served out the set, ending it with a service winner. Graf was so upset that, a couple of minutes later, after holding serve to start the third set, she hurled a ball down in disgust as she walked off to change sides.
"I was just having trouble playing my shots," Graf said. "Part of it was her, but part of it was me. I guess I was a little nervous."
She had to deal at length with her nerves because after Sabatini held for 1-all and the next game had reached deuce, the rain came. While Sabatini rested in the locker room, Graf kept walking down to the court to check the sky. She was like a caged tiger, waiting for the cursed rain to go away so she could go back to work.
For Sabatini, the break was a break. Her conditioning has been a problem since she first came on the scene four years ago. "I know I'm not in shape like she is," Sabatini said after the match. "When you have won a lot of matches in a row you are confident all the time and you don't get tired. I need that."
Today, though, she should not have tired. She came out after the delay and quickly broke for a 2-1 lead. Graf broke right back. But at 3-all, Sabatini won what should have been the key game of the match. She slugged a forehand down the line to reach break point and then surprised Graf by following a forehand in. Graf's second lob was not strong enough and Sabatini pummeled it for a 4-3 lead. A moment later, she held with a crackling forehand winner and stood one game from the final.
But Graf wasn't through. "I knew I still had a chance," she said. "I just had to go for more things, take some chances. There was nothing to lose then. I couldn't let her control things anymore."
She didn't. Sabatini led by 0-15 in the next game but Graf ripped off four straight points to get to 4-5. Sabatini, serving for the match, led by 15-0 in the next game and again didn't win another point, Graf hitting two clean winners to get to 5-5. Sabatini reached deuce in the next game, but made two errors to fall behind, 6-5.
The end came quickly. Up by 15-0 again, Sabatini made four straight errors -- a backhand wide, a netted forehand, a netted backhand and a netted forehand. It was a quick, flat ending to what had been a riveting match.
"I got a little nervous and a little tired at the end," Sabatini said. "I thought for one moment when I was up, 5-3, that I would win but I knew with Steffi it was still a long way off."
It still was considerably closer than Evert came. In the opening game of the match, at deuce, Evert came in behind a good forehand. Navratilova hit a weak return but it clipped the net and bounced over Evert's racket. Evert tossed her head in disgust, lost the next point and went downhill quickly.
The match had none of the zest that has marked this rivalry or, for that matter, of Graf-Sabatini. When it ended, the crowd cheered both women as they left together.
Today, though, they were cheering memories. This afternoon, the present belonged to Graf and Sabatini, the future of women's tennis. By Saturday evening, the future may be now. TODAY'S FEATURED MATCHES Center Court
Ivan Lendl (1), Czechoslovakia, vs. Miloslav Mecir (5), Czechoslovakia.
Mats Wilander (4), Sweden, vs. Boris Becker (2), West Germany.