Tennis: Graf preys on nerves of Novotna: Czech collapses again to help champion reach today's final where she meets Sanchez Vicario

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The Independent Online
CERTAIN aspects of the women's game remain constant, such as Jana Novotna's propensity for self-destuction. The Czech's capitulation here yesterday, while not nearly as dramatic as her famous 'choke' against Steffi Graf at Wimbledon last year, was sufficient to end her prospects of a place in today's women's singles final of the United States Open.

Graf, who won, 6-3, 7-5, after an hour and 49 minutes, trailed 2-5 in the second set, having saved a break point for 1-5. Novotna created three set points in the eighth game, a situation which may have panicked a lesser opponent but simply jogged the defending champion's memory.

Novotna had won only three of their 23 previous matches, frequently proving to be vulnerable when ahead. Graf raised her game, saved the set points and then applied pressure to Novotna's suspect nerve when she served for the set at 5-3.

The key point came at 15-15, Graf ending a lively exchange by hitting a cross- court forehand on the run. She then lured Novotna into netting a couple of forehands to break her serve and then held her own for 5-5.

Graf described what appeared to most observers as a spectacular forehand winner as a 'mis-hit'. 'Maybe it looked good but it felt stranger,' she said. 'I was lucky there. It was a nice mis-hit.'

Suspicions that the contest was as good as over were confirmed when Novotna double-faulted three times to drop serve in the next game. At Wimbledon, it will be recalled, Novotna was as close to victory as 4-1 in the final set before she began her downfall with a double-fault.

True to form, Novotna refused to acknowledge that her game seized up on crucial points. Those three double- faults, for example. 'I was not getting tense at all. I think it was the very windy conditions today. I think it was just bad timing, it really had nothing to do with being nervous or afraid to hit the ball.'

There had been errors, she agreed, but Graf is always so difficult to subdue. 'That game at 5-2 was very important,' Novotna said. 'I was up 40-15, and right there I missed a forehand return. Then I made an easy error, off my forehand as well. Even at deuce I came in after very good approaches a couple of times. She was lucky there. She passed me. After that, my game just fell apart a little bit for three games. I finally had it together when I was 5-6 down, but it was a little bit too late for that.'

Did her mind go back to Wimbledon '93? 'How could it? How can you ask this question all the time? I mean, Wimbledon was 14 months ago.'

It seemed like yesterday.

In contrast to the men's tournament, the women's singles is going to form. Graf, the top seed, will renew her rivalry with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the second seed, in today's final. The Spaniard defeated the eighth-seeded Gabriela Sabatini, 6-1, 7-6, in an hour and 41 minutes in the second semi-final.

Sabatini made a contest of the second set, breaking for

3-1, saving two match points at 4-5, and then recovering from 5-6 to force a tie-break, at which stage errors flowed from the rackets of both players. Eleven of the 14 points in the shoot-out went against serve, Sanchez Vicario saving a set point at 5-6 before serving out, 8-6, on her third match point.

Graf leads Sanchez Vicario, 24-7, and swept her aside, 6-0, 6-2, in their last Grand Slam meeting, in the final of the Australian Open. The Spaniard has won two of their last three encounters, however, recovering from match point down on both occasions.

'Super Saturday' today will decide if Michael Stich and Andre Agassi meet in tomorrow's final, not to overlook the fact that Todd Martin and Karel Novacek have a similarly strong desire to dispute whether the men's singles title remains in America or goes to Europe.