WASHINGTON -- Mary Joe Fernandez belted a big serve, scurried to the net and pushed the weak return into the open court and shot her hand into the air. In a rare display of emotion, the appreciative crowd, as one, jumped to its feet and cheered the victor and the vanquished, Gigi Fernandez, with gusto.
Given another time and place, like in a late round of a Grand Slam event maybe, they'd be rhapsodizing about this match for months to come.
Mary Joe's 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 win over no-relation Gigi had everything. And almost as good was Katerina Maleeva's three-set victory over Pam Shriver, 7-6, 3-6, 6-1, going before. It was just what the Virginia Slims tournament needed after the Monica Seles is-she-or-isn't-she flap.
(Concerning the latter, this dispatch rattled down the wires from the New York Times last night: "Steffi Graf mopped up the rain-soaked grandstand court at the National Tennis Center until her sneakers could hold firm. Then, the top-ranked female player in the world flung forehands at her coach, Pavel Slozil. By the time their simulated set and two-hour practice were done, Graf was screaming at herself over a few minor flaws and Slozil was all smiles. Graf's injured shoulder was clearly healed." Steffi had pulled out of the tourney here.)
Now, back to the live action. Usually, when women are forced to play matches extending to two hours and 10 minutes (Fernandez vs. Fernandez) and 2:35 (Shriver vs. Maleeva), the engines slip into reverse and it becomes a matter of slow-motion survival.
In both these battles, though, it was ramming speed right to the end. "There certainly wasn't much separating us tonight," said 23rd-ranked Gigi proudly.
"All three sets were close," noted fifth-ranked Mary Joe. "I'm just happy I was able to hang in. But it wasn't frustrating trying to come from behind because she was making great shots, I wasn't making errors."
As is the case in matches so close -- Mary Joe had a slim 96-92 advantage in points won -- the outcome seemed to hinge on one point. "Ah, yes, I remember it well," said Gigi:
"It was break point against me at 3-4 in the third set and Mary Joe hit that backhand down the line. I had set the point up well and was there, but she just made her shot too good. My problem was my arm wasn't about an inch longer."
Known mainly for her play in doubles, Gigi roared out to a 3-0 lead at the outset and she had a break point to make it 4-0. "I was thinking, boy, this could be fun," she said.
At the same time, Mary Joe was thinking, "Hey, this could be a quick one if I don't get on the scoreboard pretty soon." Gigi won 12 of the first 14 points, Mary Joe duplicated the feat, then the gals settled down to one of the darndest duels of shot-making you'll ever see in a round-of-16 match on a very pleasant Wednesday evening in the Nation's Capital in August.
Pam Shriver, despite the setback, once again was enthused about her effort. "The legs, the cardio-vascular were fine. I played a lot of tough points when I had to and all I needed was a little more endurance," she said.
Shriver, now 18-13 in matches this year, entered with a 7-1 career victory edge over Maleeva. But she's coming back from a computer ranking that dipped all the way down to triple figures while Katerina's been just outside the top 10 (currently 11) for about a year.
"And she plays a smart game," said Shriver. "That's why I feel good about my effort in a lot of ways. A highlight was when I hit 100 [mph] on the machine measuring service speed. Wow! But when I serve hard for a long time [2:35], fatigue sets in [on the shoulder]. I have the strength; I've just got to hold it longer."
It was a day for three-setters as the women continued the toughening up process for the two-week walk on the wild side known as the U.S. Open beginning in New York Monday. Judith Wiesner beat Radka Zrubakova, 1-6, 6-2, 6-3, and Zina Garrison got by Maleeva sister No. 3, Magdalena, 6-3, 2-6, 6-1. The only one entering the quarterfinals breezing was Jana Novotna, who zapped Laura Gildermeister, 6-1, 6-1, in about the time it took the Shriver match to get to its first ball change.
The rest of the quarterfinals today have K. Maleeva taking on the unseeded Wiesner and Novotna (4) testing Leila Meskhi (7) in the afternoon and Garrison (5) and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2) squaring off tonight at 7.