Tennis: Novotna's victory salute

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The Independent Online
WHEN Steffi Graf and Jana Novotna step on court here this afternoon to contest the final of the Midland Bank Championships they could be excused for looking at each other across the net and saying: 'Not you again]'

It will be the third time in a month that the German and the Czechoslovak have met in the concluding stages of a tournament, and we must hope that the excitement generated in their previous two matches continues.

Graf defeated Novotna in three sets in the final in Leipzig and required a third-set tie-break to win their semi-final in Zurich. Both events were staged on carpet courts similar to the one at the Brighton Centre, and, although Graf extended her career lead over Novotna to 14-3, the results are getting closer.

All week Novotna has seemed the player most likely to pose a threat to Graf's domination of the tournament. The fifth seed's natural inclination to volley proved decisive in her 6-3, 6-4 win against Mary Joe Fernandez, the second seed, in yesterday's semi-final.

However, the match was memorable less for the tennis than for the warning Novotna received for a visible obscenity. The umpire, Jane Tabor, from Somerset, saw Novotna give a V-sign, though she insisted afterwards that she did not know that this was regarded in England as a rude gesture and said she was merely indicating that Fernandez had been lucky enough to be assisted by the net cord twice in one point.

Graf's 7-5, 6-2 win against Anke Huber in the other semi-final was more edifying in every respect. Huber is still looking up to her compatriot, the way she has for almost half her 17 years, but yesterday she proved herself ready to give the four-times Wimbledon champion a match, a bonus for the spectators as Graf had scarcely been challenged on the way to the semi-finals of a tournament she has won in five of the last six years.

Not only has she avoided dropping a set, but she was able to move into her athletic stride with so little trouble that she won two of her opening sets 6-0 (against Andrea Strnadova and Lori McNeil). This, it must be admitted, was chiefly because of Graf's efficiency, which showed itself after a tentative start in the first round, against the Latvian Larisa Savchenko-Neiland, when the German was adjusting to the feel of the court.

Graf has won 29 consecutive matches at the Brighton Centre since losing to Britain's Jo Durie in 1985, and experience of a more finely tuned game enabled her to fend off Huber's spirited challenge on the latter's first visit to Sussex. In their previous three matches, Huber had not won more than five games. She equalled that in the opening set yesterday and was disappointed not to force a tie-break.

The measure of Huber's improvement was in the way she recovered from the sort of start that would have dismayed many more experienced players. After losing the opening two games she contrived to break Graf's serve, helped, admittedly, by a net cord for 15-30 but deserving to prosper by virtue of the power and confidence of her returns and cross- court groundstrokes, particularly with the two-handed backhand.

The youngster then saved a break point to level and surprised Graf and astonished the crowd by breaking to take a 3-2 lead after the champion had double-faulted on game point. Graf, characteristically, responded by putting pressure on her opponent's serve, and was able to make more of her opportunities on the close points, even after losing her serve in the opening game of the second set.

MIDLAND BANK WOMEN'S INDOOR CHAMPIONSHIPS (Brighton Centre) Singles, semi-finals: S Graf (Ger) bt A Huber (Ger) 7-5

6-2; J Novotna (Cz) bt M J Fernandez (US) 6-3 6-4.

(Photograph omitted)