Tennis: Davenport's power topples Novotna

THE COVERS were drawn and pulled back off Court One like curtains yesterday - but that was because of the rain. Although, on a day when Jana Novotna lost her women's singles title, it was just as well they were prepared.

The moisture content is always liable to rise when the Czech is in action, but yesterday she held back the water works. Grim-faced, definitely, but tears, no. Do these people have no respect for tradition whatsoever?

Perhaps it was because Novotna was half expecting to be defeated. She had faced Lindsay Davenport five times before and picked up the loser's cheque on each occasion. Grass is her favourite surface, the place her serve and volley game blooms, but even that was not enough to tilt it her way and the American won the quarter-final match 6-3, 6-4.

It was, Davenport insisted, the finest win of her career on the green stuff and, suddenly, the seed who tends to be overlooked at Wimbledon is just one match away - against Jelena Dokic or Alexandra Stevenson, both qualifiers - from the final. If she gets there she will re-assume her position as the top women's player in the world.

"Who's Davenport?" I hear you ask. Well, Novotna thinks she will be Wimbledon champion. She is also the reigning US and Olympic champion but as the national tennis focus rarely stretches beyond the All England Club you could be forgiven for not realising.

This is Davenport's seventh appearance in SW19 and until this year she had never got beyond the quarter-finals. A big server, it was a mystery why she had not done better, but she has unravelled it by dint of homework.

After losing to Steffi Graf in the quarter-finals of the French Open she spent four hours a day working out on grass near her California home. "This nice man has a grass court in his backyard and this year and last he has let me play there. And he doesn't mind that we've kind of ruined it after seven days and he has to re-grow it.

"Every time I come here I feel in better shape and a bit more flexible, which is important on grass. My serve has slowly got better and everything is gradually increasing."

That was apparent from the start yesterday. Davenport knew Novotna would charge the net and the pressure would be on her passing shots. It was a test she immediately passed because she broke her opponent to love in the first game.

First blood to Davenport and a new doubt in Novotna's mind, which was already full of them. "Every player has an opponent you don't like to meet and in my case that's Lindsay," the fifth seed said. "She has a good serve, very strong ground-strokes and I just get over-powered. There's nothing I can do. I cannot stay on the baseline and if I come in she's pretty consistent with her passing shots. From both sides. It's difficult."

Hope was rekindled when Novotna broke back but the storm raging from the other side of the net was only temporarily abated because Davenport took the next three games and first set in 32 minutes.

Rain, inevitably, intervened with Davenport 4-3 ahead in the second and rueing missed opportunities she might regret once they resumed. But, with the clouds hovering menacing above, she finished off her opponent by breaking her to 15.

Novotna, now 30, did not make an extravagant farewell a la Boris Becker but walked downcast from the court. She will be back, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that she might never add to last year's title. The women's game is moving on with Davenport, 23 last month, herself acutely aware of the younger girls hot on her tail. With a qualifier to play in the semi-final this could be her best shot at getting a Wimbledon crown.

"I'm sure I can win it now," she said. "I felt pretty good last year but went down to [Nathalie] Tauziat not playing well. But this time is probably the year I've had most belief.

"At the beginning of the tournament I was reading the paper and my coach, Robert Van't Hof, said: `You know the odds are 15-1 that you're going to win? I'm going to put a thousand pounds on that.' He never did it but we've been laughing about it since."

Now, Davenport has to decide whether to continue in the women's and mixed doubles. In the former she has reached the quarter-finals with Corina Morariu and will not face seeds until the final at least while in the latter she and Todd Woodbridge are the second seeds and are due to meet John McEnroe and Graf today.

With rain compressing her matches, however, she might withdraw from one or both. "I entered all three events here because it's so tough to get practice on grass," she said. "Obviously I'm not going to start playing three matches a day."

Novotna has no doubt Davenport can prevail if she does concentrate on the singles. "I definitely think she can win it," she said. "Especially knowing that she will be facing a qualifier in the semi-finals. It must give her a lot of confidence."

No tears, just a prediction. And possibly a new women's champion.

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