Tennis: Nerves beat Novotna again

US Open: Czech chokes against Hingis as off-court events prove last-set unsettler
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The Independent Online
THE US Open has soldiered on bravely this year in the face of distractions and interruptions. First there were the dodgy weather, strong winds and low temperatures in the wake of the various tropical storms which have brushed past this part of the United States. Then came the American sporting moment of the decade, Mark McGwire's shattering of the baseball home run record, swiftly followed by another shatterer, the publication of Kenneth Starr's report on President Clinton.

McGwire's achievement was flashed up on the giant scoreboard at Flushing Meadow, but Starr pulled off the more eye-catching feat. CBS television abandoned its sacrosanct - and expensive - coverage of the women's semi- finals to deliver the latest info on beleaguered Bill. Perhaps that's why poor Jana Novotna fell apart again.

The Czech's choke was a mirror performance to that of the 1993 Wimbledon final, when she led Steffi Graf 4-1 in the final set and failed to win another game. On that occasion she famously wept on the Duchess of Kent's shoulder; this time there was only the sound of gnashing teeth and the look of resignation on the face of Hana Mandlikova, her coach and companion, who has seen this sort of thing more times than she wants to think about.

There was hope that Novotna's merited victory at Wimbledon this summer would have blown away the web of uncertainty in which the 29-year-old becomes enmeshed whenever the prospect of glory looms, but the collapse against Martina Hingis from 4-1 to 4-6 was as bad as Wimbledon 1993 and just as embarrassing. Perhaps, with Hingis on her side of the net as partner in today's women's doubles final, Novotna will remain choke-free and go the distance.

THE US Tennis Association, much like our own Lawn Tennis Association, has embarked on a five-year, pounds 30m plan to boost interest in the sport. A Plan for Growth they call it. The intention is to boost the number of people who play tennis frequently by another million by 2002. They seem to be making fair progress, since 120,000 new players are expected by the end of this year, the first.

The campaign would seem to be under way just in time. Interest, as well as participation, in tennis has been on the decline in America for some time since the heady days of the Eighties and the junior competitions at the US Open have brought this decline into sharp focus. In the boys' singles only one American got as far as the quarter-finals, while in the girls' event two of the semi-finalists came from Slovenia and the other two from Australia.

PERHAPS THE Americans should consider offering citizenship to Max Mirnyi, the 21-year-old from Belarus resident in Florida who teamed up with Serena Williams, sister of the more famous Venus, to win the mixed doubles title.

They played together at Wimbledon, which they also won, when Max's dad, Nikolai, arranged the partnership because his son was too shy to approach Serena. The Minsk-born Max and the girl from a Los Angeles ghetto hit it off at once, finding a mutual interest in reggae and talking during the changeovers about films and food. Serena's success completes a triumph for the Williams family which is one for the trivia question devotees. The girls have completed a Grand Slam of mixed doubles this year, since Venus won the Australian and French Opens with Justin Gimelstob.

PETE SAMPRAS remains single-minded in pursuit of his holy grail, a 12th and record-equalling Grand Slam singles title, admitting: "Whenever a Grand Slam comes around, everything else in my life just stops dead. There's something significant and historic about the Slams and I put a lot of internal pressure on myself to do well in them. That's why I am so miserable when I lose a Slam."

So the International Tennis Federation will be keeping fingers crossed that Sampras's interest extends to the Compaq Grand Slam Cup at the end of this month in Munich, in which the 12 men and eight women who have done best in this year's four Slams compete for a vast pot of money. Despite the cash temptation, several players who have qualified seem set to turn their backs on the event.

In the same week, a new tournament, organised by Ion Tiriac, will be staged in Majorca and two Spaniards who have qualified for the Grand Slam Cup, Carlos Moya and Alex Corretja, have indicated that they will be playing in Spain. There is the further disappointment, in the first year that women have taken part in the Munich tournament, that Monica Seles has said she has no intention of appearing. Seles has not competed in, or even visited, Germany since she was stabbed on court by a deranged Steffi Graf fan in April 1993.