Tennis: Czech mates on a mission: Novotna and Sukova, on course to meet in tomorrow's international tournament final, explain why the absent Graf is still the player they all have to beat

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The Independent Online
JANA NOVOTNA and Helena Sukova, who could meet in tomorrow's final of the international tournament here, have become multi-millionaires by following the serve-and-volley example of Martina Navratilova, their great Czech compatriot, but have yet to win a Grand Slam singles title.

One of the reasons is that Steffi Graf has intervened; not so much by standing in their way as by running them off their feet, chiefly from the baseline. This has applied in most of their encounters with the German, who has a 21-3 record against Novotna and leads Sukova 21-1.

While both Czechs would prefer to win the Brighton event with Graf in the field, they have not missed her presence this week as much as the spectators. The German won the tournament five times in a row until foot surgery caused her to withdraw last year, when Novotna won the title.

Not surprisingly, Novotna and Sukova rate Graf a more dangerous opponent than Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, even though the Spaniard has won two of the year's four Grand Slams to Graf's one.

Novotna's only success in nine Grand Slam matches against Graf came in the quarter-finals of the 1991 Australian Open. Her capitulation with the Wimbledon title in her grasp last year is renowned as one of sport's famous failures.

'The unfortunate thing is that every time I play well in a Grand Slam I have to play Steffi,' she said. 'For me she is much harder than the others to play. We have a similar game, without Steffi coming in (to the net). I am right there, ready to beat her. I think I have it already, and she comes up with something incredible. She's the fittest and the fastest on the court and gets to places the others can't get. If I come in, I give her a target, which is why I stay back more now and am not a pure serve-volleyer like Martina.

'If Steffi plays Arantxa, she is the one who has to dictate the play, but Arantxa does nothing like that. I would rather play somebody like Arantxa, because I am able to create my game and play my shots.'

Sukova has lost to Graf in four Grand Slam matches, two of them finals, the latest at last year's United States Open (Chris Evert and Navratilova beat Sukova in her two other major finals).

'Steffi's biggest advantage is her quickness on the court,' Sukova said.

'You don't expect the ball to come back, but still it does. She gets more balls back than any other player. Arantxa really doesn't have a shot that can kill you. With Arantxa, you lose because you make mistakes.'

Sukova's only win against Graf was in their first match, in Brisbane in 1983. Sukova was 18, Graf 14. Last week, Sukova was defeated in straight sets by the 14-year-old Swiss, Martina Hingis, competing in her second tour event. 'I tried to take it like any other match, but somehow the pressure gets to you because you are supposed to win,' Sukova said.

She has yet to concede a set this week, advancing to today's semi- finals with a 6-4, 7-5 win yesterday against Nathalie Tauziat, of France. Today, Sukova meets another unseeded contender, Larisa Neiland, of Latvia, who defeated Conchita Martinez on Thursday.

Novotna, the top seed, defeated Katerina Maleeva, 6-4, 6-2, in a quarter-final which generated some splendid tennis, keenly contested rallies extending the match to an hour and 35 minutes.

Though handicapped by a blistered racket hand, the legacy of a previous round, Maleeva created sufficent chances to keep the first set in doubt for 48 minutes. Novotna would also claim, with some justification, that her opponent was helped by a few lucky net cords. There was little to aid Maleeva during the second set, when she failed to hold serve once.

Maleeva, who married her coach, George Stoimenov, is the middle one of the three Bulgarian sisters who between them have won dollars 6m ( pounds 4m).

Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere, runner-up to Steffi Graf here in 1988, has retired. Injury prevented Magdalena, the youngest, from competing this time.

For Britain, the Kaye Sisters are due to appear in concert at the venue in three weeks' time.

(Photograph omitted) Results, Sporting Digest, page 47

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