WIMBLEDON, England -- No amount of tabloid gossip could take away from this moment yesterday, when an 18-year-old American named Alexandra Stevenson won a match and made history, becoming the first qualifier to crash through to the women's semifinals at Wimbledon.
So the player with the heavenly backhand and the bright smile skipped along the grass and curtsied to the crowd that was roaring for a sporting tale that was as honest and romantic as tennis gets.
It was the story of a kid who attended her graduation at La Jolla (Calif.) Country Day school in May, slogged through qualifiers and ended up on Fourth of July weekend still alive in the game's most treasured tournament.
"I've been waiting for this my whole life," Stevenson said after beating another upstart, qualifier Jelena Dokic, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3, to race into today's semifinals against No. 3 Lindsay Davenport.
Yet mixed in with Stevenson's magical moment was the flip side to modern celebrity, the rush to know even the most private details of a person's life.
It was the result of what happened a few hours after the match and a continent away -- former basketball great Julius Erving said he is Stevenson's father.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Erving acknowledged a relationship in 1980 with Stevenson's mother, Samantha, and that his wife, Turquoise, and their four children "are aware of this situation."
"All matters concerning Alexandra since her birth have been handled privately through counsel," Erving said. "I am pleased to see Alexandra, at 18, doing so well and I applaud her mother's efforts and courage."
Erving, who initially denied being Stevenson's father when a newspaper published a copy of her birth certificate, said he met Alexandra only once at a basketball clinic, when she was 3, and that he has been supporting her financially. He said the decision to renew the relationship would be "her call."
Samantha Stevenson, a free-lance journalist, declined to comment on the matter.
As for Alexandra Stevenson, she has been the calm at the center of the storm, going out and winning.
"I focus on my tennis and let everyone else deal with that," she said of the media interest in her family. "I'm quite oblivious to most of it. I haven't read any newspapers."
Ah, to be 18 and oblivious.
Stevenson against 16-year-old Dokic was a once-in-a-lifetime match, two players angling to make history. The only other Wimbledon qualifier to reach the semifinals was John McEnroe in 1977.
Stevenson and Dokic may have been young and nervous, playing loose points in a match that started on the more intimate Court 2 and was interrupted by rain Thursday, with Dokic on the verge of taking the second set.
But yesterday, they put on a show on Wimbledon's second-biggest stage, Court 1. There was Stevenson, all power, thundering 113-mph serves, and ripping off devastating backhands.
And there was Dokic, scampering side to side, trying to return everything thrown her way, trying to keep alive her own magical tale that began with her stunning, opening-round win over No. 1 Martina Hingis.
Yet this was Stevenson's day. It was a long time coming.
She remembers being a 9-year-old and listening to Martina Navratilova, talking at Wimbledon, saying that the next great serve-and-volley player was probably some 9- or 10-year-old out there somewhere. And she darted into her mother's room and told her mom, "That's me."
She talked of the torment of switching from two hands to one for her backhand, a style she learned at 11 from Pete Fisher, the coach who schooled Pete Sampras. The last time she went back to two hands was when she wanted to win a junior tournament in which the top prize was a trip to Disneyland. Fisher saw her regress and walked out and Stevenson never used two hands on the backhand again.
She'll have a chance to show off that stroke today on Centre Court, in the biggest match of her life against Davenport.
And the other women's semifinal could be just as gripping, No. 2 Steffi Graf against Mirjana Lucic, who had a magnificent breakthrough yesterday when she beat Nathalie Tauziat, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.
Lucic, too, has been hounded by controversy, breaking last year with her father, Marinko, and moving with her mother and siblings to Florida.
But Lucic is playing with pure joy. Yet to get to the Wimbledon final, she'll have to beat her tennis idol, Graf.
"She was always my favorite player," Lucic said. "She definitely won't be my hero [in the semifinals]. I'm going to try to play well, just try to win that match."
Women's singles, quarterfinals
Mirjana Lucic def. Nathalie Tauziat (8), 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.
Alexandra Stevenson def. Jelena Dokic, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3.
Today's men's semifinals
Pete Sampras (1) vs. Tim Henman (6)
Andre Agassi (4) vs. Patrick Rafter (2)
Today's women's semifinals
Steffi Graf (2) vs. Mirjana Lucic
Lindsay Davenport (3) vs. Alexandra Stevenson
TV: Ch. 11, 9 a.m.
Pub Date: 7/03/99