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U.S. Open : McNeil Becomes an Overnight Sensation

September 11, 1987|LISA DILLMAN | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Lori McNeil returned to the Grandstand Court Thursday, and just about everyone followed her.

It was the place where McNeil recorded her most-significant victory, a three-set quarterfinal decision Wednesday over one of the icons of women's tennis, Chris Evert.

Now, McNeil was there playing doubles with longtime partner Zina Garrison, who like McNeil is black, against Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini. Spectators jammed the aisles, packing the court in hopes of catching a glimpse of McNeil. It was estimated that 8,000--a couple thousand past capacity--watched the doubles match.

Afterward, McNeil, 23, found herself in demand again. People wanted to know something more about her. McNeil's coach, John Wilkerson, was surrounded by reporters after the doubles match, fielding questions from all directions. Finally, Wilkerson decided it would be better to let McNeil speak for herself.

"The New York crowd was great," McNeil said of the support during the doubles match. "They always pull for the underdog. "

McNeil admitted that the victory over Evert had yet to sink in and probably wouldn't until next week. Her appearance against Evert marked just the second time McNeil had reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event. The other came when she lost to Hana Mandlikova at Wimbledon in 1986. And now, McNeil has gone one step more as she meets Graf today in the semifinals.

So, just who is this person who seemingly turned women's tennis upside down?

"I'm pretty wild and crazy," McNeil told The Times in an interview last month during a tournament in San Diego. "I love to go watch comedy. I love Eddie Murphy. When I'm in L.A., I like to go to the Comedy Store. I'm not a very serious person; I joke around all the time.

"I love the beach. I wanted to take a picture for the (Slims) calender on jet skis, but we had to take a picture with the bike. I want to go over there (the ocean) and ride the jet skis here."

McNeil doesn't even think twice about getting injured and eventually wants to learn how to ski (on snow), too.

"It (injury) never ever occurs to me; I guess it should sometimes," McNeil said, joking. "I think if you're worried about being injured all the time, you fall and hurt yourself."

Again, McNeil holds the same attitude in regard to her lack of endorsement offers. Neither she nor Garrison have endorsement contracts for clothing, shoes, or rackets. Nothing.

"I think if we continue to play well, everything will work out," said McNeil, who is in the process of changing agents. "I think it's been to our advantage. Because sometimes when you're up and coming and you get these big contracts, you can become complacent. When you have to work for everything you can get on the court, you become tougher as a person. When they do come, you don't take it for granted. I enjoy playing and competing, so I guess endorsements would be like icing on the cake.

"The question you just have to ask yourself, is, 'Am I out here for the endorsements?' Or, 'Do I love playing tennis?' If I'm just out here for the endorsements, then, that would be pretty silly."

The most-convincing evidence that Stefan Edberg of Sweden is a much better player than last year came Thursday in his quarterfinal match against India's Ramesh Krishnan.

Last year, Edberg met Krishnan in the third round and barely escaped with a 7-6, 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 victory. Their quarterfinal meeting this year, however, was an entirely different match. Edberg, the No. 2-seeded player, defeated Krishnan, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, in 1 hour 45 minutes.

Krishnan, who was unseeded, reached the quarterfinals with impressive wins over Joakim Nystrom, Johan Kriek and Andrei Chesnokov. Against Edberg, he fought hard but was clearly overmatched. In all, Krishnan reached break point once, and couldn't convert.

The key to the match--if there is one in such a one-sided affair--came in the third game of the second set. It went to 16 deuces and Edberg had 10 break points. Finally, Krishnan lost the 24-minute game when he hit a backhand in the net.

"I think I have improved," Edberg said. "I have played better this year. I started out very well today. I think I played the right game to beat him. I didn't really give him anything. I played very well after 6-2, 2-0 and we had that long game. I think he went down a little bit and I got a little tired and he did, too."

Edberg will play Mats Wilander, also of Sweden, in Saturday's semifinals. The third-seeded Wilander beat No. 5 Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 in a night match.

Mecir, who holds a 28-18 advantage over Sweden's top players, had three straight victories over Wilander, including a fourth-round win at last year's Open.

Steffi Graf was in a foul mood after she and Sabatini defeated Garrison and McNeil, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, in a quarterfinal doubles match.

Apparently, Graf is suffering from a cold. When she refused to attend a press conference to discuss today's semifinal match against McNeil, several reporters went to talk to Graf in the women's locker room.

"What are you doing here?" Graf asked the assembled group, between sniffles. "I am not giving interviews."

Graf was asked how long she has had the cold, and if it was getting better.

"It's just started," she replied before storming out of the room.

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