MELBOURNE, Australia — For the women's semifinals of the Australian Open tennis tournament Thursday, the contestants are:
--A forehand basher from West Germany.
--A backhand basher from Argentina.
--A big-serving former piano student from Czechoslovakia.
--Somebody from New Zealand.
In order, they are Steffi Graf, Gabriela Sabatini, Helena Sukova and Belinda Cordwell.
Those who really thought Sukova would be there instead of Martina Navratilova, or that Cordwell would be there at all, have probably been spending too much time in the hot Australian sun.
Navratilova's absence was dictated by a stunning 6-2, 3-6, 9-7 quarterfinal loss to Sukova, which prompted some soul-searching by the world's No. 2 player.
"This was a tough one," Navratilova said. "The French (Open) is not until June. So, I've got 5 months of misery, working hard for what? To lose in the quarterfinals again?
"Right this moment, it's very difficult for me to get excited about tennis. I'm sure I'll be back, but I don't want to think about it.
"I mean, there's 5 months ahead of me and if I can redeem myself, that's a long time."
The top-seeded Graf will play the third-seeded Sabatini in one semifinal, with the winner automatically becoming the odds-on favorite to win the final Saturday.
In defeating five opponents, the only measure of Graf has been time: How long would it take her to win her matches--the shortest 46 minutes, the longest 63 minutes--and get to the final.
Sabatini may not be able to stop her. Although she beat Zina Garrison in a Tuesday quarterfinal, Sabatini has lost 3 sets in her 5 matches and isn't at the top of her game.
"You say that, but I don't feel I have any pressure," Sabatini said. "I think I have a very good chance."
Graf is 14-2 against Sabatini but suffered both of those losses last year, in the final of the Virginia Slims of Florida and the semifinals at Amelia Island, Fla.
Graf, who scored a routine 6-2, 6-3 victory over Claudia Kohde-Kilsch, is not feeling particularly vulnerable.
"I think it's going to be hard for anyone to beat me," she said. "It's obvious it has been like this for a year now, so still it's the same."
The other semifinal, between the fifth-seeded Sukova and the unseeded Cordwell, is hardly as glamorous. Sukova upset Navratilova in a quarterfinal match that ended just before midnight. Navratilova twice was serving for the match, at 6-5 and 7-6, and said she gave the match away.
"I just didn't nail the coffin, nail it when I had the chance," Navratilova said.
Sukova, who studied piano for 7 years and played guitar as a youth in her native Czechoslovakia before turning to tennis, won despite a spectacularly erratic service.
In one game alone, at 7-7 in the fifth set, Sukova double-faulted 3 times but followed each error with an ace. Navratilova lost 2 break points in that game and then lost the last game on her own serve after leading, 30-0.
Although Sukova had 9 double faults and Navratilova only 3, Navratilova double-faulted at match point.
Five years ago, Sukova defeated Navratilova in an Australian Open semifinal, 1-6, 6-3, 7-5, ending Navratilova's 74-match winning streak and her quest for a seventh consecutive Grand Slam title.
Now 32, Navratilova last won a Grand Slam tournament at the 1987 U.S. Open, where she beat Graf. Navratilova said her attitude toward tennis has changed since then.
"Tennis just comes second," she said. "It is not the most important thing in my life, and maybe that's a problem. At the same time, I don't want to change my life.
"I like the way I'm living and I like the way I am off the court. That tunnel vision is not there, but I think I can win--I mean Jack Nicklaus has done it, maybe not win all the time, but still win at the big ones, because that's what I'm going to be concentrating on.
"I'm not willing to sacrifice everything in order to play good tennis. I'm too old for that. It's just (that) some things are more important than winning a tennis match. But it still hurts and I guess that's good, because when it stops hurting, I stop playing."
Navratilova was particularly disappointed because, with only Cordwell in the way, she said she could actually see herself in the final.
"There's no way I would lose to Cordwell and I don't see Helena losing that one either, unless she does another Jekyll and Hyde."
Cordwell, 23, who may be best known as half of the winning doubles team in Domino's Pizza TeamTennis last year, has never been past the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament.
A serve-and-volley player, Cordwell has not beaten Sukova in 4 meetings, including a fourth-round match here last year.
Cordwell, a doubles specialist, said she has been given a mental lift by a sports psychologist in New Zealand.
"He told me not to limit myself on what I think I can do," she said.
Describing her style as "controlled aggression," Cordwell said she will not think negatively against Sukova.
"No matter what happens, even if I can't get out of bed for the next 2 days, I'm going to go for every ball I can get."