Tennis: Graf fights back to check Novotna's advance

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The Independent Online
IT SAYS much for Jana Novotna's fortitude that she was still able to raise a smile at the Midland Bank Championships here yesterday on hearing 'and a big hand for the loser', or words to that efffect, after failing to defeat Steffi Graf in a final set for the third time within the month.

Similar sentiments were expressed on the Czechoslovak's behalf after Graf had won their final in Leipzig on 4 October and their semi-final in Zurich on 10 October. Yet even those disappointments must have been easier to swallow than the one yesterday, when Graf escaped impending defeat by the fifth seed to win the Brighton title for the sixth time in seven years, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6, and add pounds 41,000 to her vast fortune.

It was splendid entertainment, and a result which delighted Graf's vociferous supporters. She has now won 30 consecutive matches in this tournament, and has not come so close to losing here as she did yesterday since a defeat by Britain's Jo Durie in 1985.

Novotna, who ought to have been serving for the match in the second set, was then two points from victory against the four- times Wimbledon champion in the third: 5-4, 30-0. At this moment, her serve wavered and the spring returned to the German's legs. After prompting Novotna to deposit three shots into the net, Graf then let fly with a trademark forehand from the backhand court to level at 5-5.

This was not quite the finish of Novotna's challenge. She fashioned two more break points in the next game, only for Graf to make another impressive recovery. Suddenly, Novotna was serving to stay in the match, and even when she achieved this it only brought her the dubious opportunity of settling the issue with a tie- break; coincidentally, the first ever required in any set of a Brighton final.

The thought of facing Graf in a shoot-out was not calculated to fill Novotna with optimism. She had lost their pevious two tie-breaks, including the one which decided the outcome of their match in Zurich.

On that occasion, Novotna contrived to put a couple of points together before Graf gathered the remainder. Yesterday, the German won the first five points before her opponent could respond, finishing the marathon (they were on court for two hours and 33 minutes) with a sprint, 7-3.

Graf, too much a competitor to consider the plight of opponents until the handshake at the net, sympathised with Novotna afterwards. 'It probably would have killed me,' she said when asked to imagine herself in Novotna's situation. 'Jana must be very depressed. She played so well in the matches and was so close to winning, but every time I came back and played some very good shots.'

In spite of her anxious moments in the third set, Graf was of the opinion that the match was really won and lost in the second set, when Novotna was unable to convert three break points at 4-4: 'She was up a break and let me get back into the game. She was not aggressive enough.'

Novotna needed no reminding of that. 'After the match I was wondering, 'Did she win that match, or did I lose it?' ' she said. 'You give her a little chance, and she takes it all. I found it very difficult when I lost my chances in the second set, but I recovered from that. Unfortunately, in the tie-breaker she was stronger than I was.'

One of the few competitors on the tour with a natural volley, the 24-year-old from the land of Navratilova, continued to take encouragement from her recent performances. 'As long as I can keep up with Steffi, then one day I will find the right ball to win the match.'

Novotna has found the shots to beat Graf three times in their 18 encounters. The last occasion was in February, when she won a semi- final in Chicago in three sets. That was Graf's first tournament since a bout of German measles forced her to withdraw from the Australian Open, and Novotna's last before surgury to remove a huge cyst from behind her left knee put her out of the sport for two months.

Both players have made their presence felt on the tour since then, Graf particularly by defeating Monica Seles in the Wimbledon final after narrowly losing to the world No 1 in the final of the French Open final. Champion that she is, Graf continues to chide herself for flaws in her play. 'My serve was very weak today, and in the first one and a half sets I didn't move as well as I should.'

Novotna ended the day by winning the doubles title in partnership with Larisa Savchenko- Neiland. In the circumstances, it might be unwise to suggest that this was a consolation.