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Tenth Title in Sight for Navratilova : Wimbledon: American defeats Fernandez, 6-4, 7-6 (8-6), to reach 12th final. Martinez beats McNeil, 3-6, 6-2, 10-8.


WIMBLEDON, England — The 22nd and final edition of "Martina Woos Wimbledon" is alive and well, but it needed some serious help during Thursday's women's semifinals. More help than anyone ever imagined--except Navratilova, who later said she knew her match against fellow American Gigi Fernandez would be harder than a week-old scone.

Sure she did.

The unseeded Fernandez limped onto Centre Court with a pulled left hamstring, a No. 99 ranking, the lowest of any female Grand Slam semifinalist since the open era began in 1968; an 0-7 record against her Aspen buddy Navratilova, and a singles record that had her thinking retirement. Fernandez hadn't won a singles title of note since wood rackets were the rage.

So what happened? Fernandez delivered "the best performance of my life" and flirted with pulling off the biggest upset of her career. In the end, she had to settle for a 6-4, 7-6 (8-6) loss to the Grandma Moses of tennis. But for a moment there. . . .

"I have to say I'm just proud of the way that I handled it, and I'm happy that I was able to produce my best tennis at Centre Court . . . Wimbledon . . . against Martina Navratilova, the legend," Fernandez said.

The legend now faces third-seeded Conchita Martinez of Spain, who defeated unseeded Lori McNeil, 3-6, 6-2, 10-8. The final Saturday will be Navratilova's 12th at Wimbledon, Martinez's first. In fact, it will be the first time Martinez has reached a Grand Slam final in seven years on the WTA Tour.

The 37-year-old Navratilova, who is retiring from singles play at season's end, has won nine Wimbledon championships and considers a 10th title to be the fairy-tale way to close her career. She even let herself think about the possibilities during the second set of her match against Fernandez.

"I thought about it once--during a serve," Navratilova said. "And I missed the serve, of course."

Jarred back to reality, Navratilova went back to work. Good thing, too, since a relaxed and confident Fernandez was causing the pro-Martina crowd to reassess its allegiances.

Fernandez, her left thigh heavily taped, couldn't move very well. Her serve was so-so. She occasionally forgot she was playing singles, not doubles, her specialty. But after an embarrassing start--she actually received the Wimbledon version of a Bronx cheer after scoring her first point three games into the match--Fernandez began to challenge Navratilova.

"I just tried to pretend that we were practicing at the Aspen Club and not think we were at Centre Court," Fernandez said.

Navratilova, the oldest player in this year's women's draw, won the first set, then found herself down, 2-1, then 4-2, then 5-2, then set point before she realized that even fairy tales need help sometimes.

She started hitting winners when they counted most. Big point? Navratilova hit a big shot.

But Fernandez had her moments too. Once, after returning a shot off the frame and sending it weakly back into Navratilova's wheelhouse, Fernandez rushed the net, racket in front of her face, hoping for a miracle return. It didn't happen. Navratilova bounced it into Row M and then looked down at Fernandez, who had fallen on her behind.

"Go away!" Navratilova said, smiling.

"I'm not going away," Fernandez said.

And she didn't. At least, not right away.

The second set went to a tiebreaker and again Fernandez served for the set and a chance to send the match into a third set, where anything is possible. But Navratilova hit a backhand winner on Fernandez's serve and later won the match with another backhand that Fernandez thought would fall long but didn't.

"I was right there," Fernandez said. "Bad judgment."

After a handshake at the net, Navratilova searched out her coach and friends in the audience and raised her forefinger.

"One more final," she said.

Then she buried her head in her lap. Fernandez came over, put her arm around Navratilova and happily said, "I'm rooting for you to win the 10th."

Afterward, someone asked Navratilova if she had won because she was luckier or better.

"I don't really care," Navratilova said, ending the deep analysis line of questioning. "I'm in the finals."

That she is. When the tournament began, that seemed like something of a longshot. Her game was as solid as butterscotch pudding and she had top-seeded Steffi Graf to worry about.

But then Graf lost, as did most of the other top women. Navratilova's game got better and suddenly the turbocharger kicked in on the farewell tour.

"I mean, what a way to go," she said. "Geez, this is what I dreamed about. Win or lose--obviously I'm going to be busting my gut out there to win--but this is what I wanted, to go out in style. And either way, I'm going out in style."

Waiting for her is Martinez, 22, the first Spaniard to reach the Wimbledon final since Lili de Alvarez in 1928. Martinez had better hope for a better result. De Alvarez lost to Helen Wills in straight sets.

"It doesn't worry me at all," Martinez said of her Saturday match against Navratilova. "I'm going to try my best."

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