Novotna's bronze consolation

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The Independent Online
For all the ambivalence that tennis' top performers show towards the Olympics, there is something they cannot take away from the competition. It is the only tournament where you can lose and still have something to play for.

Jana Novotna benefited yesterday when, two days after she had been beaten by Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, she left Georgia with a bronze medal, her reward for defeating Mary Joe Fernandez 7-6, 6-4.

Andre Agassi had described the crowd at the Stone Mountain Park centre court as the best in tennis. "It's active and energetic," he said. "This town has been craving a big event." Certainly it is rabidly pro-American.

As the players came out to grey, watery skies that were more Pennines in February than Atlanta in August, the cheers were unashamedly for Fernandez. When the American's lob was called long in the third game the abuse would have been worthy of spectators at a boxing promotion. "Open your eyes, linesman," someone called, which hardly vouched for his own as it was a woman who had called out.

Not surprisingly given the torrent of support, it was Fernandez who struck first, breaking Novotna's serve with a powerful cross-court forehand that the 25-year-old Czech could only pat out into the tramlines.

Now Novotna's temperament as the Duchess of Kent's dry cleaner could tell you, is suspect at the best of times but instead of her wilting, it was Fernandez who shrank back. From having the set almost in the bag she let it and the match escape.

At 5-3 and set point, Fernandez retreated so alarmingly that by the first game of the second set she had lost five in succession and her serve had been broken twice. Even two double-faults by Novotna in the first set tie-break could not revive her.

Fernandez rallied, breaking back in the eighth game of the second set to level but it was a temporary reprieve, Novotna breaking again to 30 and then sealing the medal when she forced her opponent to hit a forehand into the net.

"It was an endless match," Novotna who won a silver in Seoul and who will play off for the gold in the women's doubles today, said. "We were both physically and mentally tired. It's very unusual to play for the third spot, it doesn't happen at other tournaments. I just gave it everything. I didn't want to finish fourth.

"Many of the guys didn't come to the Olympics but in the women's singles the field was so strong it felt like a Grand Slam, particularly as it was spread over two weeks. You can tell how important this competition is for the women by the numbers who have turned up. I will love the bronze."

Agassi, meanwhile, reached the men's singles final on Thursday with a hard-fought 7-6, 6-3 victory over India's Leander Paes, but he needed all his battling qualities to remain in contention for the gold medal.

He now meets Sergi Bruguera, twice French Open champion, in today's final after the Spaniard beat Brazil's Fernando Meligeni 7-6, 6-2 in the first semi-final.