Novotna loses her nerve again

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The Independent Online
A touch of deja vu will be welcome when those great rivals Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario face each other in the final of the French Open tomorrow, although just about any sort of contest would be an improvement on yesterday's semi-finals.

Granted, temperatures touching 90F in the shade made conditions less than ideal, although Graf said there was sufficient wind on the court to lesson the effect of the heat. In any event, stouter resistance was anticipated from third-seeded Conchita Martinez, who was defeated by Graf, 6-3, 6-1, in 67 minutes, and Jana Novotna, beaten by Sanchez Vicario, 6-3, 7-5, in 97 minutes.

The 10th-seeded Novotna was unrecognisable as the player who had capitalised on Monica Seles's timidity in the previous round. Her 42 unforced errors yesterday were only five short of the total in the Graf-Martinez match.

After holding two break points in the sixth game of the first set, Novotna won only two of the next 22 points, by which time Sanchez Vicario was a game ahead in the second set.

Aside from double-faulting eight times, Novotna contrived the odd novelty shot, including a smash from the baseline which hit the netcord judge.

Her problem, she inferred, was that her opponent - who also happens to be her doubles partner - was negative. "Arantxa doesn't really do anything," she complained. "She runs around the court and just brings the ball back and waits for somebody else's mistakes.''

In yesterday's heat, that seemed like hard work. But, let Novotna continue: "Tactically, I thought I was playing really well, but I just couldn't finish the balls the way I would like to, or like the way I did when I played Monica.''

She added: "I knew it would be harder to win this match than to beat Monica. Either you're going to win this match or you're going to lose this match. It's not that Arantxa won the match; it's that I lost the match.''

Novotna certainly did her cause no good in losing her serve with the second set there to be won, at 5-4, having just broken her opponent. Two games later, the match was over, nerves again creeping into Novotna's play as she served in the hope of at least forcing a tie-break.

Sanchez Vicario, for all her scurrying, always looked the more confident. She said: "I think I knew sometimes when the points were very close that if I put in a good return then maybe she would miss a volley, or maybe she would try to go a little more for the serve.''

Martinez, while breaking Graf's serve twice, could only hold once in each set. "I didn't play very good today. I don't know why. She played great, very deep, and I couldn't do much. I couldn't get into the rhythm to get into the match.''

Graf's performance showed a marked improvement in the second set, by which time she may have sensed that her opponent did not have a lot left.

"I felt I was playing pretty aggressive, especially with the forehand," Graf said. "But I did realise the she was making more mistakes and trying for too much and taking too many risks.

She added: "I knew that the heat would be favouring me, because I'm physically in better shape than she is. I think she has been in better shape before, too.''

Martinez won her only Grand Slam singles title stylishly in 1994, when Graf was eliminated in the opening round by Lori McNeil. The Spaniard has beaten Graf only once in 14 matches.

Graf clearly understood why it was difficult for the crowd to generate much atmosphere. "We didn't have that many long rallies, to start off with," she said, "and there weren't too many spectacular points. If it's such an easy match, how can the crowd kind of get into it?" We trust that will not be a problem tomorrow, when Graf and Sanchez Vicario meet for the 35th time. Graf leads the head-to-head, 26-8, and has won 19 of their 25 matches in finals.

It will be their third meeting in the final here, Sanchez surprising everybody by winning in 1989, but unable to sustain a second-set recovery a year ago, Graf winning the final set, 6-0. Immediately after that, of course, came their Wimbledon epic, Graf winning, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5.