LONDON, JULY 2 -- After one match, the winner cried. After the other, the loser laughed. Each reaction was fitting.

For three hours this afternoon, Wimbledon's Centre Court was touched by greatness; two very different kinds of greatness. The day began with yet another chapter in what is arguably sport's most exemplary rivalry. In a match filled with wonderful tennis and the kind of magic feeling these two women can produce, Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4.

"I played as well as I can play," Evert said. "I can't ask for more than that. I'm proud that we produced that kind of a match."

Moments after they had left, to a thunderous ovation, their successor arrived. In 50 breathtaking minutes, Steffi Graf gave Pam Shriver as thorough a beating as one can absorb, taking 16 minutes to win the first set and then racing to a 6-0, 6-2 triumph.

"The turning point," Shriver joked, "was when we walked onto the court."

Graf, just three weeks after her 18th birthday, is the last obstacle in Navratilova's path to a sixth straight Wimbledon championship. Saturday, when they meet, two streaks will be on the line: Navratilova's 40 straight victories here and Graf's 45 wins in a row this year.

Graf was almost scary today, so resolute, so nerveless in her first Wimbledon semifinal. She allowed Shriver 12 points in the first set, and in the whole match faced one break point, in the final game.

"I was tired from those two 10-8-in-the-third {set} matches the last two days," Shriver said. "It hurt my serving. But even if I had served better, I think I just would have delayed the inevitable. I told her she played a hell of a match. The only thing I feel bad about is getting humiliated, love and two, in front of the Duchess, Princess Diana and God knows who else. But she was fabulous. Some day she may wake up and realize she's only 18."

"There's not much I can say," Graf said. "I just played great."

As brilliant as Graf was, blasting winners past Shriver from point one until match point, this cool, cloudy day belonged to Navratilova and Evert. This was their 73rd meeting, their eighth at Wimbledon. Before the match there was some question about whether Evert still could compete with Navratilova, especially on this court. In Paris last month, on what is supposed to be Evert's surface, clay, Navratilova embarrassed her, 6-2, 6-2.

Today, though, from the beginning, it was apparent that this was a different Evert than the balky, erring Evert of Paris. She won the first game of the match with four winners and had a break point in the second game that Navratilova saved with an ace. That became a pattern throughout the match: on big points, Navratilova always seemed to have a big serve ready.

The feeling between these two is genuine. That does not diminish the intensity of the rivalry. When Navratilova got the key break of the match to start the third set, it came on a net-cord backhand return. Evert made a face because it was a lucky shot. Navratilova turned to the friends box where her entourage was sitting and said, "about time I got one." Evert had two net-cords earlier in the match.

Both players also had some fun. At one point, when Navratilova made a blind, scoop volley that somehow crawled over the net, she dropped her racket in shock. Evert promptly dropped her racket, too. Later, when Navratilova popped up a shot and was caught at the net, Evert hit an overhead that whizzed right past Navratilova.

"You were supposed to be over there," Evert said, pointing her racket to the other side of the court.

"I was too tired," Navratilova said. Then they both cracked up.

That took nothing away from the quality of the tennis, though. Each woman came equipped with a full complement of friends and family. Navratilova had her two coaches, Randy Crawford and Renee Richards, her conditioning coach and her good friend, Judy Nelson.

Evert had people all over the stadium. In the friends box, right behind the Navratilova group, sat her mother and three friends. Several rows in back of them, in the competitors section (right behind Sugar Ray Leonard) was ex-husband John Lloyd with his new girlfriend. And on the far side were new boyfriend Andy Mill and coach Dennis Ralston.

All of them had plenty to cheer for before the match was over. After the first two games, the opening set was all Navratilova. She was at her acrobatic best, making diving gets, tracking down sure winners and turning them into winners of her own.

It took 36 minutes for Navratilova to win the first set. She finished with a flourish, hitting a lunging, diving forehand down the line off an overhead to get to set point, then slapping a backhand volley into the corner for the set.

This was vintage Navratilova. Forget the stuff about being 30 and not winning a tournament for six months. "I was beginning to believe what you hear about hitting your prime at 30," Navratilova said with a laugh.

Evert is 32. She might be slightly past her peak as an athlete, but there has been no decrease in her desire to compete. That was evident in the second set. Still rolling, Navratilova had her 0-40 in the opening game, hitting a rolling forehand to reach break point.

But Evert dug in. She saved all three break points with winners and won the game. That seemed to rejuvenate her. She began to serve better, and her returns became rockets. If Navratilova had not gotten in 76 percent of her serves, Evert would have won the match.

Evert got her first break of the match to go up, 4-2, nailing a forehand return. But Navratilova broke right back, with yet another spectacular, diving volley. She came up shaking her fists, thinking the match was almost over.

It wasn't. At 4-all, Evert got into trouble when she pushed a backhand wide, a rare unforced error for either player. That put her at 30-40, what almost amounted to a match point. Evert saved it with a serve that skipped a little on the chewed up grass, eluding the sweet spot of Navratilova's racket. She hung on to go up, 5-4.

By now, the crowd was urging Evert on, hoping for yet another classic. Evert did her part. At 6-5, she broke for the set with the help of a double fault. At set point, she clipped a backhand return at Navratilova's feet. When Navratilova's half-volley went wide, they were all even.

No one knew that the next game would decide the match. Evert quickly led, 30-0, on two Navratilova errors. "I was still kind of shellshocked from losing the second," Navratilova said. "At 30-0 I woke up and told myself I better start hitting out or I'd be in trouble."

She hit out, winning the next four points, the last on that net-cord backhand. That, as it turned out, was the last break of the match. Navratilova almost ran away, leading, 2-0, 15-40, but Evert wouldn't die. She won that third game with two gorgeous lobs and on they went. Evert had a chance at 4-3, 30-all after making a terrific running forehand off a lob. But Navratilova came up with two serves to hold and lead, 5-3.

It all came down to one last sparkling game, Navratilova serving for the match at 5-4. Evert began with two textbook forehand returns. It was 0-30. Evert thumped a backhand passing shot, but Navratilova read it and snapped a winning volley. Then, a service winner. It was 30-all.

Evert had one more return in her, a screaming backhand down the line. Break point for 5-5. But Navratilova wouldn't allow it. "She hit a perfect serve," Evert said. "Down the middle, on the T."

That made it deuce. Another great serve and it was match point. One more serve, one more volley and, finally, it was over.

At the net, they embraced and Evert said softly, "I hope I didn't take too much out of you for the final."

"When she said that I had tears in my eyes," Navratilova said. "I mean, what a thing to say after losing a match like that. But that's Chris. I would have been devastated if I had lost, but now I'm kind of sad that she had to lose. At 5-4, I started thinking that I wish she could win one more Wimbledon. That's a crazy thing to think at that time, but I was thinking it."