There are many ways to lose in tennis, and Lori McNeil chose one of the ugliest Friday.
She won the first three games, lost the next 10, won 11 of the next 12, then lost the last six, allowing Argentina's Gabriela Sabatini to escape into the semifinals of the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, at Manhattan Country Club.
At the end, both winner and loser sounded equally confused.
Said Sabatini: "It was strange, the match. It was like many matches today out there."
In a wild ride more suitable for Magic Mountain, McNeil held a 5-1 lead in the third set, then blew two match points and double-faulted four times in her last two service games, failing to win a point in the final one.
Obviously stunned, McNeil wouldn't have known where she was if she had had a Thomas Bros. map. She tried to explain what happened: "I kind of rushed it a little bit or took a little bit too much time."
McNeil's reasoning might have been slightly askew, but it was clear that she blew a great chance to upset the No. 3 player in the world, because Sabatini said so herself.
"She didn't want the match," Sabatini said. "I didn't do anything special. Probably I didn't win the match. . . . She didn't do anything to win it."
It could have been the beginning of a strange day of upsets in the quarterfinal round of the $350,000 tournament, where the favorites managed to hold their ground into the semifinals.
Third-seeded Arantxa Sanchez Vicario of Spain started slowly but finished fast against Helena Sukova of Czechoslovakia and won, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0. Sanchez Vicario was halted only briefly, first by Sukova's early aggressiveness and then by an upset stomach that forced her to flee the court during a changeover.
Sanchez Vicario downed several glasses of water. "I have to put a lot of water in my head, so now I feel very good," she said.
Then she came back quickly to finish off Sukova. The only other trouble Sanchez Vicario experienced was when a bug landed on the court, but she proved equally adept at handling this situation.
Sanchez Vicario scooped up the bug with her racket and safely deposited it in the flower box behind the baseline. Unofficially, it went into the books as Sanchez Vicario's 42nd winner in the match.
She played steadily, committed only 19 unforced errors and maintained that her confidence was unshaken, even after Sukova took the early lead.
"I started missing many shots, so I lost the first set (but) I knew I could win the match," she said.
Top-seeded Monica Seles set up a rematch of her French Open final with Sanchez Vicario after cruising past Mercedes Paz, 6-2, 6-2, in 62 minutes and felt relieved.
"There were so many other strange matches, I just can't believe," Seles said. "I just didn't want to have a three-set match."
Kimiko Date (pronounced DAW-tay) got past Jo Durie of Britain, 6-4, 6-1, and advanced to her first semifinal match of the year. Date, who won two qualifying matches to reach the 56-player main draw, must play Sabatini.
Her opponent could very easily have been McNeil. Sabatini seemed gone early in the third set when she completely lost the touch on her serve. Several of her first serves were clocked in the 40-m.p.h. range.