WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND, JUNE 29 -- After five days Wimbledon was more like a swamp than an exclusive club, the courts worn into uneven tufts of grass and dirt, while would-be upsetters tugged at the sleeves of the favorites. Jennifer Capriati was nearly upset, Boris Becker had unexpected trouble. Perhaps it was a sign that the tournament had really begun.

Capriati trailed by 0-3 in the final set before getting rid of Robin White on the sixth match point, 7-5, 6-7 (1-7), 6-3. Dan Goldie, formerly of McLean, Va., nearly forced defending champion Becker to a fifth set, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5.

"It wasn't easy so far, and it's not going to get any easier," Becker said.

With the third round halfway completed, play at the All England Club has been merely a prelude. Capriati arranged a much-awaited meeting with defending champion Steffi Graf. Becker's next opponent is 1987 champion Pat Cash. The four heavyweights do battle Monday.

Cash, in the tournament on a wild card and ranked No. 142 after an inactive year recovering from a severed Achilles' tendon, played a potentially significant match he called "as close to perfection as I hope to get" in defeating 16th-ranked Jose Aguilera, 6-4, 6-1, 6-1. Graf took the first set from Claudia Kohde-Kilsch in just 19 minutes but her recent lack of conviction showed in the second, 6-0, 6-4.

Among the winnowed group that remains are some potentially troublesome lesser opponents, players with ugly little games like barbed wire designed to trip up the unsuspecting: Patty Fendick, Goran Ivanisevic and David Wheaton. Ivanisevic is the 18-year-old who stunned Becker in the first round of the French Open, and today he defeated another upsetter in McEnroe's nemesis, Derrick Rostagno, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4. Wheaton is a strapping 21-year-old from Minnesota whose massive serve-and-volley game eliminated 10th-seeded Jonas Svensson, 2-6, 6-7 (9-11), 6-1, 6-0, 6-4.

Some seeds passed into the round of 16 all but ignored, such as No. 5 Zina Garrison and No. 7 Brad Gilbert, blissfully free of Centre Court pressures. Garrison, a four-time semifinalist in Grand Slam events, eliminated Andrea Leand of Baltimore, 6-0, 6-3, and has yet to drop a set. Gilbert has not appeared on a show court, relegated to the outer reaches of the club, but is giving his best performance in a Grand Slam event since 1987 with his defeat of Paul Haarhuis, 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2. He next meets Wheaton.

"I'm not going to lose any sleep if I don't make the Sun newspapers," Gilbert said.

The tabloids have terrorized Graf, digging into her family's personal life to the point that Wimbledon officials have threatened to end any interview with her if a single question not pertaining to tennis is asked. Graf maintains she has become impervious to the pressure, but the second set against Kohde-Kilsch was another instance of her telltale loss of concentration lately.

The previously invulnerable Graf dropped her serve on a series of errors and a double fault as she tried to close out the match at 5-3, and ultimately needed five match points. But Kohde-Kilsch hasn't beaten Graf in seven years.

"Whenever it was really important, I played better," Graf said. "That's the important thing."

Graf must find some resolve by next week. She has a projected semifinal meeting with French Open champion Monica Seles, who dismissed Anne Minter, 6-3, 6-3. Seles is on a 35-match winning streak and has beaten Graf twice consecutively, including their straight set French final. But first comes Capriati, the ninth-grader from Saddlebrook, Fla., who hits as heavy a ball as there is in women's tennis and has soared to No. 13 in the world in just three months as a pro.

"I really can't wait," Capriati said. "I've always wanted to play her and it would be great to play her on Centre Court at Wimbledon."

Graf avowed she too is looking forward to their meeting, but she may well come away with the same reaction White did after Capriati forced a 32-point game in the third set. White was so worn out by the exertion of holding serve for a 3-0 lead, suffering through 12 deuces, 5 break points and 10 game points, that she collapsed, Capriati sweeping the last six games.

"I never want to hear about 14-year-olds again," White said.

Capriati has been plagued by an inability to end her matches, similar to Graf's. She was beaten by Gretchen Magers in the second round at a Wimbledon tuneup last week when she lost a 4-1 lead in the second set. Today she held two match points against White in the second set, only to spray errors around the court as White held on and forced the third set that seesawed so much it even drew Martina Navratilova as a spectator.

"First of all, I should never have been down, 0-3, in the first place," Capriati said. "I should have been in the locker room by then."

White's 3-0 lead was a dangerous one; the 26-year-old winner of 10 doubles titles was ranked as high as No. 15 in 1987 and, though she is now No. 59, is a savvy player who exposed Capriati's chief weaknesses. The teenager clearly had trouble lifting up the dinks, low slices and deadened volleys. But White was so exhausted by that marathon third game that she began slapping volleys into the net and slashing her ground strokes wide, unable to hold serve again.

"It took everything I had left," she said.

Becker's difficulties in closing out his match were partly the result of his own lapses, partly the unintimidated refusal of Goldie to give in. Goldie, who now lives in Redwood City, Calif., was a quarterfinalist last year after upsetting Jimmy Connors in the second round.

"You can't get over-awed," Goldie said. "It's just a match."

He and Becker were identical in style and intent, hulking players of well over 6 feet with murderous, nearly impenetrable serves. The difference is that Becker does it better. Goldie could not gain so much as a break point until the third set.

"I was just way off," Goldie said. "That was frustrating. I was hitting them off the frame, balls were going everywhere."

Becker finally dropped his serve to give Goldie a 2-1 lead in the third set by double-faulting, and could not retrieve the break. The fourth set was a taut serving duel. Becker opened it with a break, Goldie broke back. Becker broke again for 4-2, Goldie broke back again, gaining 0-40 with a stinging backhand return down the line and causing the West German to scream furiously over the applause.

But Becker had one more break in him, in the final game. Goldie could not handle a drilled forehand, pushing an awkward half volley into the net for match point. Becker seized it with a sweeping forehand pass.

"It was a very good grass-court match," Becker said. "I was {breaking} his serve, but the next game is the most difficult one to hold. And he kept on playing well in those moments. I had to stay in there in the fourth. But it was quite difficult to finish."