WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND, JULY 4 -- After all the talk about the proper care and feeding of children, the Wimbledon women's semifinals instead are comprised of old acquaintances. There is very little Steffi Graf doesn't know about Zina Garrison, or that Martina Navratilova can't guess about Gabriela Sabatini, and their matches today promise to have a comforting feel.
Graf, 21, and Sabatini, 20, are middle-aged in comparison to the burgeoning teenaged hordes on the circuit. Garrison, 26, falls into a generation that might politely be called seasoned. "I'm an old person on tour now," she said. So what does that make Navratilova, who seeks to become the oldest women's champion at 33? Extinct? "Certainly not," she said, indignantly.
The face of the women's game has altered drastically in the past season with the arrival of eager-eyed girls such as Monica Seles, 16, and Jennifer Capriati, 14. Top-seeded Graf, No. 2 Navratilova, No. 4 Sabatini and No. 5 Garrison are clinging to their places under threat of being superseded by teenagers wielding such lacerating strokes and huge promise. So it was with a certain sense of satisfying forestallment that they reached the semifinals.
The youth, the frightening pace with which the ball bounds off high-tech rackets, and the enormous size of player earnings suggest that from now on careers will start earlier and be shorter. Longevity such as Navratilova's, playing in her 18th Wimbledon, probably won't be seen again. Graf, for instance, suggested she may not play beyond 25, while Sabatini has cast about for an answer to veteran ennui, but may have solved it with her first appearance in the semifinals here since she was 16.
"You know, they're playing better and better when they are younger," Sabatini said. "Maybe, I don't know, I guess it's their turn now. But I think I'm still very young. I think I can still get to the top."
Sabatini arrived at Wimbledon carrying on like a burdened old woman. Complaining of staleness and lack of motivation, she began working with a new coach just four days before the tournament in hopes the change would be invigorating.
Her mood has visibly improved with the switch from Angel Giminez to Carlos Kirmayr. The change was in part brought on by upsets: Last year she fell in the second round here to Ros Fairbank; last month on her preferred clay she lost in the fourth round of in Paris to Jana Novotna.
Sabatini emerged the French Open unhappy with both her physical and mental states. Her real problems lie off the court, struggling with painful shyness and a lack of confidence and motivation that tells in big matches. She has been intermittently working with sports psychologist Jim Lehr.
"I think it was time to change," she said. "You get real tired, everything keeps the same. You need motivations. That's what I needed."
In the brief time Sabatini has worked with Kirmayr she has shown new enthusiasm. He has added variety to her shots, which in three and half years under Giminez had become predictable. She also has been less fearful of approaching the net on big points, something she must do against Navratilova.
"He's given me a lot of confidence," Sabatini said. "I think I'm another player compared to last year. I feel a lot of motivation and eager to keep improving."
But it is doubtful Sabatini's game is broad enough to deal with Navratilova, who so determinedly is seeking a record ninth title. Sabatini has won three of 15 meetings, two on clay, not Navratilova's beloved grass.
If Navratilova is hampered Thursday, it most likely will result from the troubling inconsistencies of age. "One day you may feel fantastic and the next day you can't find the court," she said. Her left knee sports a bandage to prevent a cartilage inflammation, but Navratilova called it "more of a mental band-aid," and so far it has not acted up.
Moreover, her play has been unwavering. She reached the semifinals with more ease than even Graf. Navratilova has lost just 17 games, and has had her serve broken only three times. In the process she broke the Wimbledon record for singles victories among women with 97, surpassing Chris Evert's 96 and Billie Jean King's 95.
Graf, two-time defending champion, has shown inconsistencies, still not completely recovering her health or confidence. She has been plagued by painful sinus headaches, and will have surgery at season's end.
Garrison, the lightning serve-and-volleyer, upset Seles to make her fifth major semifinal. But she has never broken through to a final. She has beaten Graf once in six matches, in 1985. She has not won a set from her since '86.
But Garrison could find a window of opportunity with her awkward slicing game. In addition to physical problems, Graf's mental lapses are becoming more marked, perhaps the natural toll of being No. 1.
Graf remarked that she may not be a player of longevity because the pressures are greater than they were in Navratilova's era. Navratilova responded curtly, "I don't know how she can say that when she wasn't there." But Graf contends the ball is hit harder, the competition is more fit. Whether that is true, there is more and more of it all the time, Seles and Capriati the chief candidates to become her next rivals.
"It certainly looks like it at the moment," Graf said.
Garrison and Capriati will be joined by Mary Joe Fernandez and Gigi Fernandez when the United States defends its title July 21-28 in Atlanta.