Graf brings her class to bear

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The Independent Online
For a time, it was possible to imagine that Jana Novotna would finally forget her tears and share Arantxa Sanchez Vicario's afternoon of jubilation by advancing to tomorrow's women's singles final. But Steffi Graf had other plans.

At the conclusion of the most fascinating women's contest of the tournament, one could only admire Graf's class and competitive spirit, and acknowledge that Novotna did not jump on this occasion, but was pushed.

Graf will now attempt to win a sixth Wimbledon title by duelling with Sanchez Vicario, the world No 2, who ended Conchita Martinez's reign as champion, 6-3, 7-6, 6-1.

Novotna at least was able to put behind her the dreadful experience of "choking" against the world No 1 when leading 4-1 in the third set of the 1993 final, and delighted the Centre Court crowd with some memorable attacking tennis.

One could detect an air of tension which tempered the expectation of the crowd. It was as though they were afraid to hope for too much, and were inclined to regard Novotna's early gains with deep suspicion, constantly expecting anticlimax. What transpired was a series of impressive recoveries by Graf, who eventually took the decisive steps, winning the last four games to prevail, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, after two hours and eight minutes.

It was the German's 750th singles victory, and leaves her unbeaten in her 31 matches this year. But at least Novotna could claim only the third set to have been won against Graf in that sequence.

The Czech had led by a set and a break, but was never able to reach a position of sighting victory so clearly that her nerve would be subjected to demons. Although she often outplayed her opponent, she was rarely given time to reflect before Graf was back in the fray, hitting great shots of her own.

Having exchanged breaks of serve with Graf at the start of the match, Novotna regained the initiative for 5-4. In a sense, serving for the set represented her first crisis. Tested by Graf's returns, she slumped to 0-40, steadied to 30-40, but was undone by a hefty return to the line.

It was then Graf's turn to dither. She double-faulted on game point and then missed a forehand volley as Novotna broke back again for 6-5, and calmly served out to love with a confident smash after 42 minutes.

The second set followed a similar pattern, with an exchange of breaks followed by periods of uncertainty. Novotna had break points in the fifth game, which went to six deuces. Graf saved one point with a winning serve, but failed to keep a backhand volley in the court on the second.

Two more chances came the Czech's way in the seventh game. She completely miscued a backhand to lose the first. Then, after Graf double-faulted, she was unable to avoid the net with a backhand approach. By now, Graf had grown tired of being put on the defensive, and she produced a trademark cross-court forehand to crack Novotna's serve for 5-3.

Then the unexpected happened. Graf was broken when serving for the set. Indeed, Novotna was so delighted with the angled backhand drop- volley with which she won the game that she dropped on one knee at the net and saluted her coach, Hana Mandlikova.

Wonderful though the shot had been, the gesture was premature. Graf responded by breaking back to love to level the match after an hour and 33 minutes. She then opened the deciding set by holding to love and then broke for 2-0 as Novotna double-faulted on the first two points.

This was it, then. Another big let-down by Novotna. But no. She won the next three points, broke back by luring Graf into misdirecting a backhand over the baseline, and levelled to 2-2 by holding to love.

It was then that Graf took steps to win the match without giving Novotna a chance to lose it. She held serve for 3-2, and then saved three break points for 5-2, Novotna netting an approach shot. They were the last chances she would have. Graf, sensing the kill, forced Novotna back to deuce in the eighth game before completing the job with a winning backhand return down the line.

"I got a lot of pleasure out of winning, because it was a close match," Graf said. "I was not feeling very comfortable out there, not confident, and to be able to turn it around made me extremely happy."

Novotna took consolation from her performance. "I really enjoyed every minute of it, and I'm happy to provide some excitement for the spectators," she said. "I think that was one of the best matches I played against Steffi since the Wimbledon final. I was playing consistently throughout the whole match, but I felt that towards the end Steffi was getting better and better."

The final will be the 34th meeting between Graf and Sanchez Vicario. Graf leads the series, 25-8, having defeated the Spaniard in the final of the French Open a month ago to regain the No 1 position. They have met once before at Wimbledon, Graf winning in straight sets in the quarter- finals in 1989.

Arantxa's joy, page 30