Tennis: Novotna wins case for defence

A larger cheque ( pounds 50,000) went to the shorter Czech. Jana Novotna successfully defended the singles title at the women's international tournament here yesterday, defeating her compatriot, the unseeded Helena Sukova, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4.

Novotna, the No 2 seed, edged a rare contest of serving and volleying, an art which will further diminish when another Czech, the great Martina Navratilova, takes her final bow at the Virginia Slims Championships in New York next month.

Errors were inevitable in a final between players from the same country, who were not only slightly nervous about the prospect but also knew each other's game intimately. Though they had competed against each other on only six occasions previously, Sukova winning four of the matches, they shared 15 titles as doubles partners, two of them won at Wimbledon, before deciding to go their separate ways.

At first, Sukova prospered from her opponent's erratic serving, picking off second deliveries with impressive passing shots, but as the match progressed she began to lose the capacity to take opportunities. 'I had more chances, but Jana took all of hers,' she said; not absolutely accurate, but near enough.

When Novotna faltered serving for the opening set at 5-4, Sukova steadied herself for the tie-break, which she took 7-4. A splended service return immediately created two break points in the first game of the second set, but Sukova missed a return on the second of the chances after Novotna had produced an ace to save the first.

Sukova then found herself two breaks down at 1-5, requiring one of her opponent's famous collapses if she was to salvage the set. There were signs that this might happen, Novotna twice double-faulting when losing her serve in the seventh game and double-faulting again to present Sukova with a break point at 5-3. A netted return put paid to that, Novotna taking the set on her fourth set point.

One break of serve proved decisive in the final set, Novotna winning a volleying duel on the concluding point of the third game. She then saved a break point with a service winner in the next game, failed to take one of three chances for 4-1, and then sighed with relief when Sukova netted a drive with an opportunity to level at 3-3.

After that, it only remained to see if Novotna would complete her task without self-destructing. She lost the first two points of the final game and double-faulted for the eighth time on her first match point. There was no mistake with the second, a confident volley ending the match after two hours and two minutes. Sukova's consolation was pounds 22,500.

It is the first time the 26- year-old Novotna has successfully defended a singles championship, and she acknowledged the absence yet again of Steffi Graf, who had beaten her in the final three years ago.

Graf's year appears to be over. The persistent back injury which flared during the final of the United States Open, which she lost to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario last month, will keep her out of this week's event in Essen, and it seems unlikely that she will be fit for the Virginia Slims Championships. The way the WTA Tour computer rankings work, Graf is guaranteed to end the year as the world No 1 if she does not hit another ball.

The organisers of the Brighton event will continue the search for a sponsor, the only sour note last week being Conchita Martinez's poor performance in losing to Larisa Neiland in the quarter-finals. As far as the WTA Tour is concerned, the matter is closed. There will be no investigation, as neither the match umpire nor the referee suggested that the Wimbledon champion did not give her 'best effort'.

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