WIMBLEDON, England -- The first rally of the men's semifinals at Wimbledon was sighted at 6:32 p.m. yesterday.
It was also the last.
On a grass court transformed to dirt and rubble by a scorching sun and 11 days of play, Wimbledon was turned into a serve-and-volley pit. Four players, armed and dangerous with mid-sized rocket, uh, racket launchers, held a serving exhibition. Approach shots were verboten. Lobs were useless. This was three swings and you're out, the tennis equivalent of watching two pitchers throw one-hitters.
A reigning titlist even discovered that holding serve meant nothing. And when play ended, Wimbledon was left with the first all-German final.
Michael Stich defeated defending champion Stefan Edberg of Sweden, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-2). Three-time champion Boris Becker defeated David Wheaton of Lake Minnetonka, Minn., 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5. Stich, 22, the No. 6 seed, will be making his first appearance in a Grand Slam final tomorrow. Becker, who supplanted Edberg as the newest No. 1 in men's tennis, will be in his fourth straight Wimbledon final and sixth in the past seven years.
The odd man out is Edberg, Becker's playmate in the past three finals. Despite holding serve in 23 game, Edberg lost to Stich because he lost in three tie-breakers.
"It's a pity they invented tie-breakers. Otherwise we'd still be in the second set," Edberg said. "It's a bit frustrating. I had a few chances, especially in the second-set tie-breaker. I played a few bad shots, and that was the whole match."
Edberg had two double faults in the first tie-breaker. He lost the second one when he whiffed on an overhead. "I didn't watch the ball like I should have -- it's as simple as that," he said. Edberg never recovered in the third tie-breaker when a Stich backhand clipped the net and dropped over for a 2-0 lead.
"Yes, I think the tie-breakers are quite necessary," Edberg said at the end of his interview. "We would still be in the second set."
Edberg wasn't the only player baffled by the concrete freeway at Centre Court. Even Stich, a 6-foot-4, 175-pound serving machine, was drained by the combination of all serves and no play.
"It is frustrating for both sides when you're serving well and nothing happens," he said.
Stich dumped in 125 mph serves for 3 hours, 8 minutes, pinning Edberg with eight aces and a 56th and final service winner on match point.
"I just played good tennis," Stich said. "I'm really happy that I won that match. It was just a great feeling to beat Stefan. I played really tough the whole match."
Stich was born in Pinneberg, Germany, 15 miles north of Hamburg, and trains in Munich. A top-ranked German junior, he chose to complete his secondary education before hitting the tour in 1988. His rise has been rapid, from No. 795 to No. 7.
He lost to Jim Courier on the red clay at Roland Garros in the French Open semifinals last month. But grass is his playground. This is his third Wimbledon and his sixth grass-court tournament, yet he has perfected the serve and return, the two most lethal shots on a hard, skidding surface.
"When you like to serve and volley, grass is a very good surface for that game," he said.
But Centre Court at Wimbledon is now a scarred pit that tests the reflexes and tries the patience of the survivors.
"The court is a bit worse than it has been," Becker said. "They had to play so many games on it. That's why there are not so many breaks of serve. But this is the Wimbledon semifinals. You know, strange things happen."
There was nothing unusual in Becker's match against Wheaton, the 22-year-old who wears the stars and stripes headband. Becker warded off 10 break points on serve and unloaded 13 aces while playing his fourth match in as many days. Becker was tired yet delighted. He needed a protective wrap on his right thigh to ease the pain of a muscle strain. But he wasn't about to quit.
"The last time I had to stop they had to carry me out in the second round in 1984," he said. "I was going to try."
The semifinal experience clearly frustrated Wheaton, a grass-court specialist who marched past Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi only to come up against Becker.
"Boris is on a different level than the rest of the people I've played," said Wheaton, ranked 20th in the world. "I basically felt like I outplayed him. I was the one with the chances and the break points. It's amazing I lost that match in straight sets with all the chances I had."
But the loss set up history. Two Germans playing for the greatest title in tennis at the All England Club.
"After Michael beat Stefan, we gave each other high fives," Becker said. "I said, 'Let's have an all-German final.' "