WIMBLEDON, England — Wait a minute. I like Chris Evert Lloyd, too, but the fact is she blew it. The way the American press was acting Thursday you’d think the Czechs had sent her a bomb disguised as a birthday cake.

“Tough break,” one reporter mumbled.

“She really wanted it,” said another.

Hey. Lloyd was up 5-2 and lost 14 straight points in the second set. Fourteen straight? And that was after missing an easy shot that sunk her in the first.

Sorry. But Hana Mandlikova simply kicked Chris’ butt in the semifinals. And if you think that term is inappropriate for this sport, you’d better wipe off your glasses — the rose- colored ones.

This isn’t 1910. Women’s tennis today is just men’s tennis with the speed turned down. No more dainty hits with long, lazy baseline volleys. No more fear of aggression. The women who win today don’t spend time doting on ponytails and tennis dresses. They’re too busy sharpening their razor serves and their stiletto drop shots.

That’s the way Mandlikova plays. That’s the way Martina Navratilova plays. No coincidence that those are your Wimbledon finalists this year.
‘She overpowered me’ None of which takes away from Lloyd, who plays much younger than her 31 years. She won the French Open last month. And she had a much tougher draw than Navratilova at Wimbledon. She played hard against Helena Sukova and Kathy Jordan, two name players, while Navratilova flexed her muscles against — whom? — Isabel Demongeot, Kris Kinney and Jane Forman.

But against Mandlikova in Thursday’s semifinal, Lloyd just did not have it. Period. I don’t know how to say that nicely.

“Can you explain what happened?” Lloyd was asked in the interview room afterwards.

“I just couldn’t reach deep down,” she said, a tired look on her face. “The shots that I hit against Sukova and Jordan just weren’t there when I needed them.”

Indeed, Lloyd sent balls into the net that would normally be winners. Balls she usually pushes to the baseline were now suddenly flying over it.

That stretch in the second set was almost too painful to watch. Lloyd, trailing 1-0 in sets, led 5-2, and the packed Centre Court crowd shifted in their seats, figuring this match was going to three.

Then Mandlikova put two aces past her and won the game without surrendering a point. A shutout. That made it 5-3. She did it again the next game, breaking Evert’s serve. It was 5-4. Another shutout. And then again. Another game. Still no points for Lloyd, and it’s 5-5.

Lloyd hit a forehand long, and the crowd moaned. How many more zeroes? You could feel the whole of Wimbledon slipping away from her. Then she put a backhand into the net. Another moan. How much longer?

It would be easy to blame this all on a lapse by Lloyd. A mental collapse, maybe? Temporary insanity? Only all this time Mandlikova was playing brilliantly. Her serve was a blowtorch. Her court movement was smooth and smart.

“She overpowered me,” Lloyd said.

A few minutes later, she had won the match, 7-6, 7-5. And she deserved it. Don’t give up on her yet So there goes America. The U.S. men were all gone with the quarterfinals. With Lloyd out, only Navratilova, the Czech-turned-American, remains among the women.

Obvious bad news for the States. But what was even more obvious Thursday was how much people dislike seeing “Chrissie” lose. She has the air, the temperament, and the image that people seem to root for — American or not — especially against the more aloof Navratilova or Mandlikova. I’m sure NBC is not thrilled about that final.

But that’s the way it went. Sugar and Spice fell to Wallop and Slice. And afterwards, Lloyd had to face the inevitable question:

“Are you thinking about retiring?”

“I don’t think this match had anything to do with retiring,” she said.
“When I’m ready to retire, I’ll retire. I still have one Grand Slam title under my belt. Now it’s time to go home and get ready for the U.S. Open.”

The feeling here is that Lloyd will be back for one more Wimbledon. But when she does go, her sport will have a hole ripped through it — not only because she is Navratilova’s toughest challenger, but because her persona is such a magnet for the game. That is why she doesn’t need excuses made for her when she loses.

“Right now, today and tomorrow,” she said, “Hana is playing the best here besides Martina. She deserves to be in the final, not me.”

Class she has. The best game she doesn’t. Not this weekend, anyhow.

“How disappointed are you?” she was asked.

“I’m pretty tough,” she said, biting her lip.

And she will be back. Bet on it.

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