Jana Novotna says she doesn't remember very much about the Wimbledon final she lost to Steffi Graf on 3 July. Which is probably just as well. As defeats snatched from the jaws of victory go, this was a collector's item. Novotna led 4-1 and 40-30 in the final set, the championship a mere five points away. Graf, the hottest favourite for many years in a tournament deprived of Monica Seles, was surely going to be beaten by the No 8 seed. And it would have been no fluke. Edged out of the first set 7-6, Novotna had stormed her way through the second 6-1 and kept up her remarkable form well into the third.
As she prepared to serve for the point that would have given her a 5-1 lead, there was no indication of catastrophe. In a kiss- of-death line of commentary like no other, John Barrett told viewers, 'I think the belief is here. At moments like this in the past she has tended to choke on her leads. But I don't think it's going to happen today. We'll see.'
We did indeed. Novotna blasted her second serve three feet out. Deuce. Then a simple volley that landed about six feet out. Advantage Graf. Finally, a smash that wasn't even close to getting over the net. Game Graf. 2-4. Within 15 minutes it was 6-4 to Graf, and one of the great 'bottle jobs' was complete.
At least, that is how it looked. But not to Novotna. After the match she refused to accept that she had 'choked', and she maintains that view three months on. 'All I was doing was going for my shots,' she says. 'That's the way I play. It had worked in the semi- finals and quarter-finals. OK, I gave her a chance with the second serve and the easy volley. But I've looked at the tape of the final and I would play it like that again. I only have positive memories of Wimbledon. I'm very proud of what I achieved there.'
Sue Barker, the former British Wightman Cup player and Wimbledon semi-finalist, says there is a fine line between losing your rhythm and caving in. 'No player wants to be thought of as a bottler, and if you'd asked me on the morning of the final whether I thought Jana was one, I wouldn't have said so,' Barker says. 'But she does rather have that label now, and she'll have to work twice as hard to lose it.'
This week Novotna is back in Britain for the first time since Wimbledon to compete in the Autoglass Classic in Brighton. Graf was due to be there, too, but has pulled out injured. And with the organisers' attempt to lure Martina Navratilova or Arantxa Sanchez Vicario looking a forlorn one, the field is there for Novotna's taking. She had 'flu last week, so may not be at the top of her game, but is looking forward to playing in front of a British crowd again. She seems genuinely not to have suffered from the kind of experience that lesser characters might have had a great deal of trouble recovering from.
Perhaps the key is that the emotional Novotna is happyto be emotional. Breaking down in front of the Duchess of Kent wasn't embarrassing. 'It was a very beautiful moment for me and I think for everybody,' she says. 'I think it's good to show your emotions. It can lift you up.' Novotna's tears can be seen as a mark not so much of instability as of stability; as evidence of a healthy capacity for self-expression.
That comes from a secure upbringing in Brno inher native Czechoslovakia, where Novotna was born 25 years ago. Her father is an engineer, her mother a schoolteacher, both sporty but not particularly tennis-minded. Novotna, who as a child enjoyed playing football, first picked up a racket when she was eight. She joined a local club and knew by the time she was 14 she wanted to make a living out of tennis.
Since 1987 she has been doing exactly that, and proving with seven titles to be among the very best of the group which has always struggled to bridge the gap to Navratilova, Seles and Graf. But Sue Barker thinks she is getting closer all the time, and could even be 'on the brink of greatness'.
Novotna's tennis has manyvirtues, according to Barker, including 'one of the best second serves in the game', which is something of an irony. 'She likes to serve-volley both points, so she does sacrifice a few double faults,' Barker says. 'But she's got a great return of serve, which she takes really early. Her volleying is sharp. She's a very aggressive player and she has to accept that she's going to lose a few matches because that's the way she plays the game.'
Novotna's development has beenoverseen by arguably the second best woman player to come out of Czechoslovakia after Navratilova - Hana Mandlik
ova. 'She's the person I can trust and count on,' Novotna says of her coach. It's a close relationship, and between tournaments Novotna will often base herself at Mandlikova's home near Antwerp in Belgium, 'where the facilities are so much better than in Czechoslovakia'.
Home is just for holidays. It was there, where her old school friends 'admire me for what I've achieved but still treat me just like they always did', that Novotna headed for a week after her Wimbledon exploits. Then she had to prepare to represent her country in the Federation Cup in Frankfurt. Her performance there was moderate - one win and two defeats. She followed that by reaching the last 16 of both the Canadian and US Opens and then, a fortnight ago, she came good again to reach the final of the Leipzig tournament. The only trouble was, it was against Graf. Graf won 6-2, 6-0.
Despite that defeat, and in an era when burn-out is affecting more andmore women players before they are even out of their teens, what is noticeable about Novotna is the sheer enthusiasm she still has for the game. To that extent she has benefited enormously from not turning professional until she was grown up, and reckons she still has four more years of good tennis inside her. 'There are moments when I'm really tired and you travel so much that you're living out of a suitcase, but I never really dislike it,' she says.
She hasn't made any particular friends on the tour, but that, she says, is true of all the leading players. 'It's not really possible to be friends with the girls in the top 10 when it matters so much how you play against each other.' But there is plenty to enjoy. 'There is always excitement and the feeling you get when you are rewarded for all your hard work.'
Hard work and giving 100 per cent, whatever the cost - these are things Novotna admires inher great heroine Madonna. And it's not difficult to see them as defining characteristics in a woman who could yet go from being one of the most famous Wimbledon losers of all to one of its most popular winners.