Tennis: Novotna survives an anxiety attack

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The Independent Online
NO MATTER how much Jana Novotna protests, she seems destined to be remembered for selecting that other impostor, rather than triumph, in the Wimbledon final this year. The tag 'choker' has been forged and crafted and, unless she does something spectacularly successful, it will be hung around her neck for eternity.

To lose to Steffi Graf is no disgrace but to succumb with a Wimbledon title at stake after being a decent serve away from a 5-1 lead in the deciding set, as she did last July, takes some jettisoning from the memory. Even the Czech's 4-6, 6-0, 6-3 win over Patty Fendick in the semi-finals of the Autoglass Classic yesterday merely emphasised her sense of loss. To win in Brighton is one thing, but who cares when you have imploded with nerves on the Centre Court of the game?

Novotna, the No 1 seed, needed 98 minutes to dispose of her Californian opponent, who surprisingly had won three of their five previous encounters. Yesterday the top seed's anxieties came and went with the first set, as she kept her momentum when the going got tough.

Both players like to serve and volley, which made it an unusual contest in this age of baseline bashers, and at first Novotna was disturbed at confronting a carbon copy of herself. 'She's the sort of opponent I don't like to meet,' she said. 'You never get into a rhythm. She comes into the net at every opportunity and it puts pressure on your passing shots.'

Players have said much the same about Novotna in the past and the strain told in the 10th game, when she served a double fault - shades of her match with Graf - to go 30-0 down, and then surrendered the game and the set after surviving two break points. 'I wasn't serving very well,' she said. 'My second serve was coming up short, which was giving her a chance to attack. I told myself 'Relax. Just swing at the ball.' '

The pendulum swung in her favour with that self-analysis and she raced through the second set in 20 minutes, allowing her opponent seven points, only two of which came on her serve.

It was a momentum that Fendick arrested initially in the deciding set, but ultimately Novotna's natural advantages (four inches in height and 20lb in weight) told and she won five out of the last six games.

There was plenty of momentum but little subtlety in the second semi-final, a trial of strength more than a test of tennis skill. Anke Huber and Mary Pierce, 18-year-olds from Germany and France, slugged it out from the back of the court for 2hr 34min before the crunching groundstrokes of the former prevailed 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.

Pretty it was not. Huber has wonderful racket control to belt the ball as hard as she does and keep it within 20 yards of the court's extremities, but it needs a contrast at the other end to make it interesting. Pierce could not provide it and the match had only the same sort of macabre fascination as a contest between two heavyweight boxers.

The match probably set a record for driving forehands; Huber's did the damage. She swept into a 4-0 lead in the deciding set but was pegged back to 5-4, before breaking Pierce's serve, the fourth time she had done so in the set.