Tennis: Novotna displays class on grass

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WIMBLEDON'S nearly girl Jana Novotna gave herself a timely boost for her 13th attempt at the Championship when she won the Direct Line title at Eastbourne yesterday, defeating Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 6-1 7- 5. It was the 21st tournament win of her career but the first on grass.

The 29-year-old Novotna, twice a Wimbledon runner-up, believes her previous experience in the closing stages of the world's top tournament will be of crucial importance over the next fortnight: "Wimbledon is wide open this year and knowledge of the conditions will play a major role," she said after collecting her winner's cheque for pounds 48,000, and a kiss on both cheeks from Sir Cliff Richard.

"You have to get to the last stages of Wimbledon a few times before you are ready to win it," Novotna added. In which case she is thoroughly qualified - twice a finalist, once a semi-finalist and four times in the quarter- finals.

As the outstanding, perhaps the only, serve-and-volley player of high quality in the women's game there is no reason why Novotna should not conquer Wimbledon. The barricade in the past has been largely self-erected by her tendency to fall apart at crucial moments or, as detractors would have it, to choke.

"It is important to gain your confidence in the tournament before Wimbledon and I am glad I have been able to do that," Novotna said. "But Wimbledon is a different story. There is a long way to go and many good players to challenge. But there is no pressure on me whatsoever after my two finals there and I have waited long enough for my chance.

"When I got to the final in 1993 it was a whole new experience for me but when I played my second final last year I was well prepared. Unfortunately, I strained a stomach muscle in the semi-finals."

Novotna played well all week at Eastbourne and did not drop a set in four matches. She rarely faltered against Sanchez, who had thrashed her 6-1 6-1 when they last met at Key Biscayne in March. The Spaniard, fresh from her victory at the French Open, ran with utter determination and retrieved doggedly as ever, despite needing treatment at the end of the opening set for a muscle strain in the right thigh. Sanchez said later that she had pulled a muscle playing on Friday and that it had begun to bother her again yesterday. "But I think it will get better for Wimbledon," she said.

Novotna was generally in command in front of a sell-out crowd on an afternoon of such heat and humidity that an early attempt to start a Mexican Wave fizzled out ignominiously. With Sanchez unable to find either length or rhythm, Novotna surged into a 4-0 lead, sweeping up the first set in 28 minutes by capturing the Spanish serve for a third time.

Sporting a huge bandage on her right leg, Sanchez might have been expected to concede the second set and turn her mind towards Wimbledon. But that is not her way. She jumped into a 2-0 lead and Novotna was not able to break back again until the sixth game when a double-fault cost Sanchez her serve.

This was the knife-edge stage of the match, with both women berating themselves for errors and whooping with joy when the winners came. The seventh game of the second set was the longest of the match and Sanchez took it on her sixth break point. But serving for a 5-3 lead proved beyond her.

By now she was flexing her leg gingerly and unable to keep Novotna away from the net, where her punishing volleys caused maximum damage. Trying to take the second set into a tie-break proved too much for her, too. Novotna moved to match point when a Sanchez forehand struck the net tape and on the next point Sanchez's backhand sailed over the baseline to give the Czech victory in 1 hr 26 min.

After accepting the trophy, Novotna recalled that she had played many times previously in this tournament. "I am like old wine, the older the better," she said. That one went down well in a resort where the wheelchairs and Zimmer frames proliferate.