Tennis / Wimbledon '93: Mandlikova is inspiration for Novotna: The spectre of the Czech connection, past and present, looms large in today's women's semi-finals

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MEETING Martina Navratilova in your first Wimbledon semi- final is sufficient motivation to get any player out of bed and to work on time. It is not enough, however, for Jana Novotna, who has special reason to look beyond today's showdown for the opportunity to inscribe her name on the famous silver plate two days from now.

The 24-year-old Czech woman desperately wants to win the tournament for herself and also for her coach and close friend, Hana Mandlikova, who was another Czech rival to Navratilova in an earlier generation. Mandlikova was a wonderfully talented player and a beautiful mover on court. She was a winner at three Grand Slam venues but never at Wimbledon.

that fact,' Mandlikova said yesterday as she honed her protege's game in readiness for the big test. 'She has always said that if she had to win one title it would be Wimbledon and she would do it for me.'

Novotna, seeded No 8, should have been a serious contender for one of the major titles before now, especially at Wimbledon, with a game that is tailored to the faster surface.

Those who label her No-No Novotna have scant faith that when the going gets tough she has the courage to cross the line which separates the near-misses from the big cheques. A win over Gabriela Sabatini in the quarter-finals will have turned one or two heads, if not opinions, and she will still be an outsider to bring down her compatriot at the same stage she fell a year ago against Monica Seles.

She has the same win-loss record as Conchita Martinez has against her semi-final opponent, Steffi Graf: 0-7. Only twice has Novotna extended the nine-times Wimbledon champion to three sets. But one of those, significantly, was the only occasion they had met before on grass, at Eastbourne in 1990.

'It's a great achievement for Jana and I'm delighted she has at last made the breakthrough,' Mandlikova added. 'She has played well throughout the tournament and if she keeps that up she will beat Martina. She can beat anyone if she is on her game. She has the best concentration of any player I have ever come across. It just seems to come easy for her.'

Nevertheless all roads lead to a Navratilova-Graf final, or so it would seem with the ruthless approach both the leading seeds have shown to reach this stage. Navratilova now plays only for the love of the game and the affair is so strong she seems to lop five years off her age every time she steps into a tournament. On these lawns she skips around like a 26-year-old still striving for her first title.

'It's remarkable that she has got to another semi-final at 36,' Mandlikova said. 'No wonder she says being on Centre Court is like being in her own front room. She knows it so well. She is definitely beatable, but to do so Jana will need luck on her side. To do well in Grand Slams you need to be healthy, happy and mentally tough. And she is all of those. What I have shown her is the need to be more aggressive on court, because that's what has cost her matches in the past. I get her on to the practice court and show her that whether she is down or up she has to go for her shots every time.'

There is an edge to the contest that elevates it above the other semi-final. Navratilova and Mandlikova were hardly Czech-mates and the more eye- catching exponent found it hard to live with her rival's success and the way she worked to achieve it.

During one match between them she alluded through gestures on court to Navratilova's Popeye-like strength. It irritated Navratilova, who claimed that Mandlikova had some growing up to do. As time went on they grew a little closer and Mandlikova now says: 'All three of us are friends because we come from the same country.'

That may be so, but Novotna did not appear anxious to praise today's opponent in advance, saying she did not remember Navratilova when she was growing up in Czechoslovakia. 'I'm too young for that,' she said. Neither it seems was she an inspiration. 'Absolutely not. When I started to play tennis I did it just to get involved in another sport. I played many different ones and tennis was just another to add to the list.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- WOMEN'S SEMI-FINALS HEAD TO HEAD ----------------------------------------------------------------- GRAF v MARTINEZ ----------------------------------------------------------------- Year Venue Surface Round Winner Score 1989 French Open clay QF Graf 6-0 6-4 1990 French Open clay QF Graf 6-1 6-3 1990 Leipzig carpet SF Graf 7-6 7-6 1991 US Open concrete QF Graf 6-1 6-3 1991 Virginia Slims carpet last 16 Graf 6-0 6-3 1992 Florida concrete F Graf 3-6 6-2 6-0 1992 Philadelphia carpet QF Graf 6-1 6-1 ----------------------------------------------------------------- NAVRATILOVA v NOVOTNA ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1989 Australian Open concrete last 32 Navratilova 6-2 6-2 1990 Eastbourne Grass SF Navratilova 7-6 3-6 6-3 1990 Nokaia Masters carpet round robin Navratilova 6-3 7-5 1990 Nokaia Masters carpet round robin Navratilova 6-2 6-1 1991 Virginia Slims carpet SF Navratilova 6-1 6-4 1992 Chicago carpet F Navratilova 7-6 4-6 7-5 1993 Paris carpet SF Navratilova 6-1 6-2 -----------------------------------------------------------------