Serving for a 5-1 lead in the final set of her United States Open semi- final against Martina Hingis, the 29-year-old Novotna impersonated her notorious downfall against Steffi Graf in the Wimbledon final five years ago.
On that occasion, Novotna double-faulted on a game point. This time she lost her serve to 30. The outcome was eerily similar. A revitalised Hingis swept to victory 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 after an hour and 59 minutes and now meets Lindsay Davenport in the final. Davenport, the No 2 seed, defeated Venus Williams 6-4, 6-4.
Hingis, the defending champion, so sharp when defeating Monica Seles in the quarter-finals, allowed herself to be outplayed by Novotna for much of the match. The brilliant serve-volleyer made intelligent use of the knowledge she had gained as Hingis' doubles partner, slicing the ball, controlling the net, and refusing to feed her opponent a fraction of the pace she received from Seles in the previous round.
That said, there were six service breaks in the opening set, Hingis dropping four of them. It was hardly surprising the players made a nervous start. Having arrived on the court, they were sent back to the locker room for 10 minutes because CBS, the host broadcaster, had been sidetracked by the breaking Kenneth Starr Report on President Clinton.
Hingis, wise to make more effective use of her net play in the second set, seemed to have gained the initiative until broken in the opening game of the final set. When Novotna broke a second time, for 4-1, the Swiss began to pout, as though all was lost. She could hardly have anticipated that Novotna was about to self-destruct.
"I started to miss too many approach shots and volleys," Novotna said. "You simply can't do that against Martina. Against her, if you are up 4-1 or 5-0, you still have to continue playing her. I was getting a little bit tired. The first set took a lot out of me. There were a lot of rallies, and I had to do a lot of running."
Hingis said: "I played a great match against Monica but in the beginning today I just couldn't get anything. I came back in the second set, and then I lost some stupid games.
"I was just hoping to get back. I didn't really believe it, but I didn't give up. That was the best thing about today's match."
Davenport advanced to her first Grand Slam final convincingly after edging a fluctuating first set. The 18-year-old Williams, beaten by Hingis in last year's final, recovered from 0-3 to 4-4, only to miss with a forehand volley on the third break point of the ninth game.
The second set went with serve until the seventh game, when Williams was broken to love. She took a bathroom break during the change-over and then held serve for 4-5. Davenport calmly served out the match to love, Williams netting a service return on the final point.
Davenport will not be short of support in today's final. The 22-year- old Californian has won six of 11 previous matches against Hingis, the latest in three sets in Los Angeles last month.
It used to be a worry being present when Pat Cash senior was watching his son play matches, his body convulsing every time the former Wimbledon champion hit a serve. Now the stress has transferred to another Australian tennis father, Nick Philippoussis.
"Dad said it nearly gave him a heart attack," the 21-year-old Mark Philippoussis said after squeezing through to his first Grand Slam singles semi-final. "And I think all my team has got some grey hairs."
Pat Cash junior, who helps coach Philippoussis, was on the point of chewing through his plastic credential, and Gavin Hopper, the trainer, looked in need of breathing exercises as their protege duelled through a fifth set tie-break against Sweden's Thomas Johansson on Thursday night. This was a particular kind of drama that cannot be repeated at Wimbledon, where final sets are played to a finish without tie-breaks.
Philippoussis had recovered from two sets to one down and 2-4 in the fifth set. Each player had three match points in the tie-break. The Australian erased Johansson's third opportunity at 8-9 with his 30th ace, taking the shoot-out 12-10 to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 7-6 after three hours and 26 minutes. Philippoussis senior, relieved and proud, hugged his son and told him: "You turned into a man tonight."
They then prepared to face a "Super Saturday" semi-final against Carlos Moya, of Spain, the French Open champion. Philippoussis' compatriot, Pat Rafter, the defending champion, meets Pete Sampras, the world No 1, who is trying to equal Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam singles titles. It could be quite a weekend for Australia and Greece.Reuse content