Tennis: Novotna masters her nerves

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Jana Novotna, the second seed, used a blazing serve as the basis for a straight sets victory over Mary Pierce to claim the singles title at the Chase Championships at Madison Square Garden yesterday.

The Czech serve and volleyer won an epic first-set in a tie-break, then swept to victory over the seventh seed from France 7-6 6-2 6-3 in two hours on the blue carpet.

"It really feels great, fantastic," said Novotna, who won the prestigious title for the first time in her ninth year of qualifying for the elite 16-player event. "I thought it was very important, whoever won the first set would be playing with more confidence. From that point on, my game got stronger."

Novotna, who hit 15 aces and never dropped her serve, broke down in tears of joy during the award ceremony, while thanking her coach, Hana Mandlilova.

The 27-year-old Czech became the first player since Martina Navratilova in 1983 to win both the singles and doubles titles at the tournament. She claimed the doubles crown on Saturday with Lindsay Davenport when they capped the first year of partnership with a 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 win over the French pair Alexandra Fusai and Nathalie Tauziat.

"The whole tournament I played well, no question about it. I was really focused and wanted to win this title very much because I felt I was playing the best tennis of my life," added Novotna, who will finish the year as the world No 2.

Pierce's inspired quarter-final victory over Martina Hingis created an opportunity for someone who had not won a grand slam to capture the year's last major prize and Novotna seized the day.

The final was a clash of players known for strong strokes and fragile egos. But Novotna never showed signs of cracking, perhaps in some small way shedding the reputation for choking in big matches she had earned, most notably, with her infamous collapse against Steffi Graf at the 1993 Wimbledon final.

Pierce, who is now 0-5 against Novotna, abandoned her usual perch on the baseline and adopted an attacking game, actually going to the net more even than her opponent.

The match turned on the outcome of the tight marathon first set. Pierce held serve easily six times, while Novotna was forced to save a break point in the second game and two set points on her serve in the 16-point 12th game, finally sending the set to a tie-break with a 100 mph ace down the middle.

Novotna then fell behind 2-4 in the tiebreak, but she roared back, winning the next five points and ending the set with another timely ace.

The second set began like the first one ended - with an epic 20-point game that went to deuce seven times. Pierce fended off five game points and Novotna saved two break points before finally holding with a backhand down the line.

Novotna never faced another serious challenge from the hard-hitting Frenchwoman the rest of the way. She ended the match by holding serve at love, sending a big forehand into the corner that Pierce could not handle, and the victorious Czech thrust her fists skyward and lit up the arena with her smile.

- Bill Berkrot in New York