NEW YORK -- Gabriela Sabatini looked up to the blue sky, saw a blimp fighting for space with five airplanes spewing out smoky advertisements for a resort, a furrier and a soup company, and tugged at her white baseball cap.
Not even an air traffic controller's worst nightmare could stop the defending U.S. Open women's champion yesterday.
Sabatini, the No. 3 seed, defeated No. 9 Jana Novotna, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), in the fourth round. It was yet another predictable result in the women's tournament, which has been nothing more than a sideshow at this year's Open.
But that is about to change.
Standing between Sabatini and another title is a thicket of seeds. First up for Sabatini in tomorrow's quarterfinals is No. 7 Jennifer Capriati, a 6-1, 6-2 winner over Jo Durie. If she advances to the semifinals, Sabatini could face No. 2 Monica Seles, who defeated Regina Rajchrtova, 6-1, 6-1. Lurking at the top of the draw is No. 1 Steffi Graf.
"I feel more confidence now," Sabatini said. "I feel more satisfied."
Sabatini has been inconsistent throughout the tournament. Yesterday, she committed 12 double faults, had 41 unforced errors, and converted only two of 14 break points against Novotna. Yet she said: "I think I played very well."
Her serve-and-volley game remains unchanged. The only difference is her appearance. She is wearing the baseball cap for the first time in her career.
"Because of my hair," Sabatini said. "My hair is too long, it is more simple."
Why not cut the hair?
L "Because I want to leave it long," she said. "It looks bad?"
Novotna is a hard server who is tough to figure. She plays splendidly for several games at a time, but inevitably falls apart on the big points against the big players. Still, she presses on, one of the last phenoms to be produced by the Czechoslovak tennis system.
"Czechoslovak tennis is in a bad way now, because we have open borders and we are becoming a capitalistic country," she said. "I think many young players are playing tennis only to make money, or to have a better living in Czechoslovakia. I think what is missing in Czech tennis and in Europe is that people are not thinking about winning the trophies. They are only thinking about winning the money."
Seles could be pressed in the quarterfinals when she faces Gigi Fernandez, a 6-2, 6-2 winner over Radka Zrubakova. Fernandez is known mostly for her ability in doubles, but she has refined her style and risen to No. 23 in singles.
"I never played Gigi," Seles said. "I am going to have to learn a little bit what her style of play is. But I think she has good form."
Capriati has displayed the form to win the Open. She has lost only 12 games in four matches, and her biggest worry has been getting from Manhattan to the National Tennis Center in one piece. The Capriati family was shaken when one car they were driven in bounced into a pothole. In another ride, they had to sit by when their driver was pulled over by a police officer for changing lanes in the Midtown Tunnel.
"It's all like pebbles in a shoe," said Capriati's father, Stefano.
When the action is confined to the court, Capriati is in command. Durie, 31, was battered by her 15-year-old opponent.
"You get a sort of intimidation against Jennifer," Durie said. "You know she will hit the ball hard and if given a short ball, she is going to whack it."
But can Capriati knock Sabatini from the tournament? She is 1-6 lifetime against Sabatini, but she has been the better player in the earlier rounds of this year's Open.
"Jennifer is playing unbelievable," Seles said. "Gabriela is playing unbelievable. It should be an unbelievable match."