Novotna still proud after the fall

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Their were no tears from Jana Novotna on Centre Court at Wimbledon yesterday, just a smile of pride at her own brave performance and a nod of recognition that a new age in women's tennis has dawned. Martina Hingis's victory, making her the youngest Wimbledon champion this century, represented the 16-year-old's second Grand Slam trophy of the year and she will now probably come into the Tiger Woods scale of public anticipation whenever she plays a major tournament.

But whatever Hingis goes on to achieve in her career, she will surely remember the fluctuating fortunes she experienced in her first Wimbledon final. At 4-0 down inside 11 minutes of the first set the Centre Court crowd had become silent with embarrassment and sympathy as the youngster struggled with a combination of nerves and Novotna's early determination to impose herself on the game.

Indeed Hingis had seemed in a daze even before the match began, as she needed a guiding hand from Novotna to send her to the correct side of the court for the knock-up. In those first four games Novotna seemed to extend the role of guide to one of a strict teacher punishing a pupil on her first day at school. The contrast between their tennis outfits - Hingis in a Tesco cheese-counter number, Novotna in classic gym mistress pleats - only served to underline their apparent roles in the power play.

Novotna's serve and volley aggression, which had brought her 65 victories on grass in her career before yesterday, swept her through the first set in precisely 21 minutes. It looked as though the terrible memories of her collapse in the final set against Steffi Graf in the 1993 final - from 4-1 ahead to a 4-6 defeat - would be banished forever, so convincing was her form and attitude.

More cynical followers of the game, however, began to twitch for their mobile phones wondering what Hingis's odds-in-running might be given Novotna's cruel nickname as the "Czech choker".

But still Novotna refused to conform to her acquired stereotype, despite Hingis's growing confidence. And then came the sixth game of the second set. Novotna fluffed a volley, clawed her way back, and then finally saw Hingis produce a trademark shot - the two-fisted back-hand right into the angle - to give her her first service break.

Yet Novotna did not crumble. She held her serve for 3-5 and then saved four set-points before Hingis's potent weapon of the day, the lob, brought her back to parity.

The final set was almost too close to call and very nearly too painful to watch as Novotna survived an epic first game to hold her serve - four break points saved - and quickly broke Hingis to lead 2-0.

Then Hingis pulled a new racket out of its plastic wrapping like a child getting a present on Christmas morning and began her march into history.

She quickly broke back, using Novotna's pressurising tactics against her, and a fierce forehand forced Novotna into an error which left the Swiss teenager 3-2 ahead. Novotna limped forlornly to the chair to be attended by the tournament doctor and you wondered if there was a greater need for a psychiatrist.

But over the last few games of this mini-epic Novotna finally laid to rest all doubts about her character as she fought like a cornered tigress to deny this new elemental force in the game. In the end, she couldn't quite do it, but many better players than Jana Novotna will face similar fates over the coming years.