Novotna chokes again

Click to follow
JANA NOVOTNA would never admit that she choked when she famously threw away a 4-1 lead in the third set of the women's singles final at Wimbledon two years ago. And in the face of a far worse collapse here yesterday - almost unprecedented in the history of Grand Slam tennis - she once again refused to accept what appeared to be the only explanation.

Outside the realm of a strip cartoon, nobody would invent a story in which a player lost a match from leading 5-0 and 40-0 in the final set. Yet that is exactly what happened to Novotna, the 26-year-old from the Czech Republic, in the third round of the French Open, and this time there was neither the excuse of having Steffi Graf as an opponent and a Grand Slam title at stake, nor the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent to cry on.

The player staring at certain defeat was Chanda Rubin, a 19-year-old American who had already put up a plucky showing in taking a far more experienced and highly ranked opponent - No 5 in the world to Rubin's No 53 - to a third set. But with a good deal of assistance from Novotna, Rubin proceeded to save nine match points as she recovered to serve for the match at 6-5.

The plummeting Novotna now stuck out a hand and found something to cling on to by breaking Rubin to make it 6-6. But she then lost her serve to give Rubin another chance at 7-6. Having squandered three break points, Novotna hit a poor drop shot from which Rubin hit a backhand winner down the line, and it was match point the other way. Unlike Novotna, this was the only one Rubin needed. She punched away a forehand volley to win, 7-6 4-6 8-6, in two hours 50 minutes of extraordinary tennis, rendered no less gripping by the number of mistakes on both sides. But Rubin deserved it, for her boldness and for breathing new life into the cliche that it is never over until it is over.

There are no doubt good reasons for not facing up to it when your worst nightmare has come true, but the way Novotna fronted it out afterwards made one wonder what would have to happen for her to feel even the slightest pang of self-recrimination. "Yes of course, I shouldn't have lost that match because I was already that far ahead," she said. "But you know, I am not the only one who this is happening to. There is nothing I can do. I tried my best and I still lost. Good for her."

But to lose from such a position, to squander nine match points, surely suggests a huge loss of nerve? "Maybe I should have done things differently . . . but I had so many chances that I tried everything at that stage and she was just better with each point." Not true, alas. Most of them were decided by unforced Novotna errors.

Pressed on which players might have lost from a comparable position, Novotna mentioned Gabriela Sabatini, who has, on occasions, self-destructed spectacularly. Presumably Novotna was not thinking of the 1958 French championships when Budge Patty suffered almost identically to her, losing to a local man, Robert Haillet, after leading him 5-0 and 40-0 in the fifth set. But other examples of capitulation on this scale do not exactly leap from the record books.

As for Rubin, a judge's daughter from Louisiana for whom the palpitating atmosphere of the Centre Court at Roland Garros was a bit of a change from her last tournament in Bournemouth, the match was, not surprisingly, the most dramatic she had ever played in, she said, and provided the best win of her career. "I wasn't really thinking of coming back or winning, you know, five or six games. I just kept wanting to think about each point and not really crowd my head with too many other thoughts."

The sensation of Novotna-Rubin overshadowed the rest of the women's third- round programme, which went to form other than the win by Anna Smashnova of Israel over the No 14 seed, Amy Frazier of the United States, The poise of Martina Hingis briefly threatened the power of Lindsay Davenport before the American recovered to win in three sets. And there were straights-sets wins for the holder, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Kimiko Date, Ai Sugiyama, Mary Pierce and Iva Majoli to complete a last 16 which comprises three Spaniards, three Japanese, two Germans, two Americans, an Israeli, a Croat, a Romanian, an Italian, an Argentine, and a Frenchwoman.

A fascinating fourth-round match will pit Majoli, the 17-year-old Croatian considered one of the most exciting prospects in the women's game, against Pierce. When the two met in Rome last month, Pierce survived a match point before winning in three sets. It may be even tougher for her today.