As in 1993, when she threw away what seemed a certain victory against Steffi Graf, Novotna found herself a break up in the final set of a Wimbledon final. But once again the Czech let the advantage slip and with it the chance of her first Grand Slam title.
Having played most of her career in the shadow of Graf, the 28-year-old must have felt her opportunity had come in the German's absence. But now the Hingis era, which one day could compare favourably with that of Martina Navratilova, whom she was named after, is well and truly under way, Novotna's day may never come.
Hingis has now lost only once in 44 matches this year, when she was beaten by Iva Majoli in the final of the French Open. At the time the young Swiss was recovering from a knee injury sustained in a fall from her horse, and given her majestic form at Wimbledon - she had not dropped a set until yesterday - the greatest threat to her dominance of the women's game seems more likely to come from faults in her equestrian technique than any frailty on court.
Not that Hingis was given an easy ride yesterday. Novotna declared before the match that she was determined to enjoy her second Wimbledon final and she was comfortably the more relaxed of the two players as the contest began on an unusually sun-drenched Centre Court.
The tall Czech was quickly into her stride, rushing to the net where she feels most comfortable and dispatching crisp volleys to break Hingis to love in the first game. Before she could tell herself where she was and on what occasion, Hingis was 4-0 down and looking a pale imitation of the confident performer of the earlier rounds. While Novotna was obeying her instincts and playing her natural serve-volley game with conviction, Hingis seemed to have forgotten what her natural game was.
By inclination a baseliner, Hingis decided late in the first set to copy Novotna in rushing to the net. Novotna was initially so startled to see her opponent at such close range that she skied a forehand into the crowd but when she realised that Hingis did not know what she was doing there either, Novotna relaxed and served out the set 6-2.
"I felt like a beginner out there in the first set," Hingis said afterwards. "Jana was just all over the net, and she served very well. She just didn't give me enough space for the returns, and I was like pretty in shock."
But the shock wore off as Hingis dug in and waited for her opportunity in the second set. Novotna was starting to struggle with a pulled abdominal muscle sustained in her semi-final against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario which was affecting her previously solid serve and slowing the speed of her advances to the net. Hingis capitalised to seize a break with a running forehand pass scooped into a corner with Novotna unable to chase it.
To her credit, and against the expectations of cynics in the crowd, Novotna refused to fold with the loss of the second set. She got the better of nervy opening exchanges in the final set which saw both players struggling to hold their serves. In what turned out to be a cruel reprise of her situation in the 1993 final, Novotna led 2-0 in the final set and had a point for 3-0. But her injury was hampering her more and more as Hingis's passing shots grew more precise and the Czech's efforts to reach them increasingly desperate.
Novotna's first serve was now letting her down regularly, and a series of errors brought the Swiss teenager two match points at 5-3. Hingis accepted the second of them with a simple cross-court forehand, leapt in the air with a squeak, and the celebrations began. "It may be that I am too young to win this title,'' Hingis said. "But I really did it and maybe tomorrow I will realise that I won this tournament.''
For Novotna there was the realisation that she had lost it - again. But this time, she could smile in defeat. "I was happy," she said. "I was coming into this championship a different person. It really had nothing to do with what happened here in '93, and I definitely felt that way."
There was an altogether happier encounter for Novotna with the Duchess of Kent, who told the Czech to come back next year, when it might be third time lucky for her in a Wimbledon final. The Royal Family can be very diplomatic when they try.
Stan Hey, page 22Reuse content