WASHINGTON -- After having been soundly beaten by Mary Joe Fernandez in two matches this year, Katerina Maleeva entered last night's semifinal of the Virginia Slims of Washington with a new approach.
"I was not afraid of her this time," Maleeva, a 22-year-old from Bulgaria, said. "I believed I would win."
Maleeva, the sixth seed, used that new-found confidence at the start of the match, winning the first three games on the way to a 6-3, 6-4 upset win over third-seeded Fernandez. Maleeva advances to this afternoon's final against No. 2 seed Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who earlier was a 6-0, 6-1 winner over No. 7 seed Leila Meskhi. It was Maleeva's first win over Fernandez since 1986, when she recorded a 6-2, 7-5 win on clay in the Family Circle Magazine Cup.
Her aggressiveness was evident from the outset, as she won the first game without surrendering a point, broke the serve of Fernandez in the second, and rallied from 0-40 to win the third.
"I thought I played more aggressive," Maleeva said. "I also served well and handled those high lob shots she hits. Before, I used to have problems with those."
After dropping the first set, Fernandez, the No. 5 player in the world, jumped out to a 4-2 advantage in the second. But Fernandez double-faulted twice in losing the next game, and she never really challenged afterward.
"I just made too many errors," said Fernandez, who committed 43 unforced errors. "She just played solid, percentage tennis. She hit the right shots when she had to, and she served well when she had to."
And Maleeva controlled her nerves when she had to. After Fernandez challenged what she thought were bad calls against her throughout the match, the fans rallied behind her. When an apparent baseline winner by Fernandez in the ninth game of the second was ruled out, the usually polite crowd erupted with a round of boos.
"The atmosphere got very nervous; I don't remember playing in front of such a crowd," said Maleeva of the crowd that clapped loudly when she faulted. "I was surprised she questioned so many calls. I'm glad I kept my nerve and won."
Fernandez said her questioning of calls was justified.
"There were a lot of [bad calls], but the whole week they've been that way, so what can you do?" Fernandez said. "You just need to get better [linesmen] out there."
In the first semifinal, even questionable calls couldn't help Meskhi in her lopsided loss to Sanchez that lasted just 43 minutes. Sanchez, 20 -- No. 4 in the world -- hardly broke a sweat, as Meskhi won just 23 points during the match and was thoroughly outplayed.
"I had to concentrate every point, and I didn't miss any shots," said Sanchez, who beat Meskhi for the third time this year. "I hit a couple of good winners and I served well. I didn't give any chance that she could come back."
It appeared Sanchez would win love-love when she won the first five games of the second set. But Meskhi was able to break serve in the sixth game, giving the sparse crowd eager to see a competitive match something to cheer about.
"I tried to hit my first serve hard, but it didn't get in," Sanchez said. "Then she hit a couple of good shots. But it didn't matter. I knew I just had to continue to concentrate."
Meskhi, the No. 13 player in the world, reached the semifinals with the help of a two-fisted backhand that she worked with accuracy from baseline to baseline. But her money shot was nowhere to be found yesterday.
"It was terrible. I made a lot of mistakes," said Meskhi of her backhand. "I was a little tired today. And she's a very smart player. She's faster and she doesn't make mistakes."
While Maleeva and Sanchez have been successful, neither has won a title in 1991. That may be the reason why Sanchez, who has reached 10 semifinals and four finals this year, often operates in the shadows of other top players.
"The people recognize me," said Sanchez, when asked whether the lack of recognition bothered her. "To be there, you have to be consistent. All I have to do is to win some tournaments, and then I'll move up."
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2), Spain, def. Leila Meskhi (7), Soviet Union, 6-0, 6-1; Katerina Maleeva (6), Bulgaria, def. Mary Joe Fernandez (3), Miami, 6-3, 6-4.