Tennis: Novotna hits overdrive just in time: Leading players struggle early on but find the right gear to make further progress

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The Independent Online
IT HAS not been a particularly happy return to Sussex so far for Jana Novotna, the defending champion at the women's international tournament here. Having had her car broken into on Monday, she left the key to her game lying around yesterday. It was discovered by Joannette Kruger, a 21-year-old qualifier from South Africa, ranked No 78 in the world, who had a good deal of fun until it was reclaimed by the owner.

Novotna won, 2-6, 6-0, 6-4, to advance to a second-round meeting with Patricia Hy, of Canada. The second seed had already arranged to have a window replaced in her BMW 535E (naturally, with an automatic choke) following the theft of the car radio. Here again, luck was not with her.

Last year the tournament was sponsored by Autoglass.

Not partial to air travel, Novotna prefers to drive to European tournaments in the company of her coach, Hana Mandlikova. As they made the four-and-a-half-hour journey from their base in Antwerp at the weekend, Novotna expected it would take a round or two for her game to groove after taking a fortnight's rest following a victory in Leipzig.

Kruger confirmed Novotna's suspicions, taking advantage of every loose serve and short approach shot to punish her throughout the opening set. Though Novotna was not in trouble after breaking serve at the start of the second set, Kruger continued to contest the points, luring her opponent into some keen rallies, particularly towards the end, when she saved three match points against her serve at 4-5.

Novotna, frequently frustrated at the lack of bounce on the fast carpet court, indulged in some lengthy Czech monologues. 'It was not abusive language,' she assured us. 'I was just telling the truth to myself about what I was doing wrong. I was saying, 'You have to move, you have to be fast, you have to get to the ball'. If you say it in Czech it is very long and sounds very interesting.'

Anke Huber, the runner-up to Novotna here last year, received a Porsche for winning the Filderstadt tournament on Sunday, but left the car in Germany.

In common with Novotna, she struggled to defeat a qualifier in the opening round and punctuated her match with exclamations.

The fourth seed experienced difficulty subduing a fellow 19-year-old, Elena Likhovtseva, from Kazakhstan, who led 3-0 in the final set and had two points for 4-0. Huber edged her way back, helped by an overrule on a crucial call in the eighth game, and won, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.

Huber's remarks, briefer than Novotna's in the main, were not always confined to herself. Occasionally, she shared her thoughts with her new coach, Jurgen Windahl, seated on the front row of a balcony behind the baseline. Sometimes Windahl would respond. Though this is against the rules, the exchanges rarely amounted to more than an expression of frustration and a word of encouragement.

Conchita Martinez, the Wimbledon champion, advanced to the second round with a 6-3, 6-4 win against Austria's Petra Ritter but Gigi Fernandez, the Wimbledon semi- finalist, lost 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, to Julie Halard, who eliminated Clare Wood, the lone Briton, in the first round. Fernandez did not go quietly, receiving a warning after scattering courtside flowers with an angry swish of her racket when 1-5 down in the tie-break; a mixed bunch, rather like the players.

(Photograph omitted)