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Defeat of Evert thrusts McNeil into Open spotlight; NFL strike talk

Two days before triggering the most noteworthy result at this year's US Open tennis championships (an upset of Chris Evert), Lori McNeil was at the edge of public recognition. Playing on an outside court at the National Tennis Center in New York, the 11th-seeded player had eliminated her friend and doubles partner, seventh-seeded Zina Garrison. What surprised Garrison more than the result may have been the location of the match, which seemed weighty enough to schedule in either the main stadium or the grandstand.

``I don't think that was good,'' Garrison said of being assigned to a less prestigious court. ``I think Lori and I are two exciting players who at least should have gotten into the grandstand.''

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That they didn't was a case of tournament officials not recognizing the wonderful opportunity to showcase two American success stories. Both players are black, public-park products, just the kind of role models the United States Tennis Association needs in its efforts to expand the game's playing base. Last year the two made history when they became the first black women ever to contest a final at a tour event (the Eckerd Open in Tampa, Fla.).

On Wednesday, McNeil was a party to history again, only on this occasion her victory in the grandstand wrote an inevitable, but unexpectedly timed chapter to Evert's glorious career.

Up until then, Chris had advanced to the US Open semifinals or final in all 16 previous appearances. McNeil's 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory, daringly achieved by rushing the net 90 times, not only snapped Evert's incredible streak at this tournament, but also extinguished any hope that she might somehow win her seventh US crown and extend her string of winning at least one Grand Slam event to 14 years.

For the 32-year-old Evert, who constantly copes with retirement questions, the defeat was the kind of jolting result that could lead to a reevaluation of her future tennis plans. For McNeil, a late bloomer at 23 and a first-round US Open loser the last two years, the triumph represents another big step in her rise to the game's upper echelon.

Few believe she can continue her roll at the Open, since in today's semfinal action she goes against top-seeded Steffi Graf, the world's No. 1 player. In the other semi, defending champion Martina Navratilova and Helena Sukova square off in a rematch of last year's finalists. The women's final will be sandwiched between the men's semifinal matches on Saturday.

Ivan Lendl, who scored an overpowering sweep of John McEnroe, now meets Jimmy Connors, who defeated Brad Gilbert in a more suspenseful quarterfinal, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0. The other men's showdown will pair whoever emerges from the Stefan Edberg-Ramesh Krishnan and Mats Wilander-Miloslav Mecir matches. Football strike talk

Boy, wouldn't the United States Football League love to be up and running now. The league, which once had planned to begin its first fall season this year but remains in limbo (an answering machine takes messages), could fill the void if a National Football League strike occurs.

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Instead, some NFL owners are talking about fielding teams of non-roster players if the regulars walk out on Sept. 22, as they're threatening to do. A labor-management dispute wiped out nearly half the '82 season, and the two sides are at loggerheads again, with negotiations expected to resume this weekend. The dispute focuses on a system that restricts player movement from team to team.

In anticipation of a possible strike, some teams have reportedly paid $1,000 as a retainer to players cut from training camp rosters. These athletes could be recalled to form makeshift squads if necessary.

The NFL Players Association sees this as a shaky plan. ``Without our players on the field,'' says Doug Allen, the union's assistant executive director, ``it will be a rag-tag shoddy product.''

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