Tennis / Wimbledon '93: Novotna facing the ultimate testing ground - Czech challenger needs new reserves of mental strength in today's women's final if she is to beat the champion. John Roberts reports

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HANA Mandlikova, who is preparing Jana Novotna for the daunting task of competing in the 100th women's final at Wimbledon today, was the raw opponent against Chris Evert in 1981, the last time the silver salver was in hands other than those of Martina Navratilova or Steffi Graf.

Evert, who won 6-2, 6-2, recalled the 19-year-old Mandlikova looking at a photograph on a wall of the players' waiting room before they went on court. 'Who's that?' the Czech asked. 'Little Mo,' Evert told her.

There was a memorable moment during Mandlikova's post-match interview when she was asked what the Duchess had said to her. 'She just told me to play my own game,' she replied, taking the Duchess to be Betty Stove, her Dutch coach.

Mandlikova, who then held the French Open title, defeated Navratilova to reach her first Wimbledon final, but lost to the great champion in her second final, in 1986. As is the case with Novotna, she had talent in abundance but did not always do herself justice on the big occasion.

The 24-year-old Novotna has the added dimension of a style suited to faster courts. The question to be answered this afternoon is whether Thursday's exciting win against Navratilova has inspired her, as the means to a glorious end, or given her a sense of fulfilment that will make her as ready a target for Graf as Mandlikova was for Evert.

Finals are tests of mental strength as much as tennis strokes, and Novotna's only previous experience of a Grand Slam final was in Australia, in 1991, when she lost to Monica Seles in three sets. In Seles's absence here, the Czech has emerged as a worthy challenger for Graf's title, though she may discover that nothing in the women's game compares with the Centre Court at Wimbledon on the second Saturday.

Graf was 18 when defeated by Navratilova in her first Wimbledon final in 1987. 'It was not really nerve- racking,' she remembered. 'I was so happy that I was there that I didn't really think much about winning. I was just so excited to be there at that stage that I just took everything a little bit too loose.'

She has since won the title four times. Had finals become more nerve- racking? 'Sometimes they are,' she said. 'I think they are more exciting now than they were in the beginning. They are more precious than they were in the beginning.'

Novotna, who said that defeating Navratilova for the first time meant more to her than reaching the final, may revise her opinion today. She knows this is the best chance she may ever have to raise herself above the level of a winner of major doubles titles and run-of-the-tour singles events.

It was interesting that she considered that her confidence had been helped by not being tested in the singles event at Eastbourne the week before Wimbledon. 'I was fortunate,' she said. 'I had the flu after Paris, so I just played doubles in Eastbourne. Usually in Eastbourne the press builds up a bit, saying, 'OK, you have a serve and volley game, how are you going to do next week?' and all that. Because I didn't play singles this year I had nothing like that. I just felt coming into this tournament like I had no expectations at all.'

Novotna has played Graf at Wimbledon on two previous occasions, losing in straight sets in the last 16 in 1987 and in the quarter-finals in 1990. Though Graf's 16 wins in their 19 matches includes two brief encounters at the French Open, Novotna defeated her in three sets on a medium- paced concrete court at the 1991 Australian Open and twice on fast indoor carpets in America.

Graf has been pressed to win their last four matches, including the Brighton final in October, when Novotna ought to have been serving for the match in the second set and was then two points from victory in the third set. At this moment her serve wavered, and the spring returned to the German's legs.

Before the championships, many observers considered that the only player capable of defeating Graf was Graf herself. Novotna has the capability of giving the champion a nudge in that direction, though she has more of a tendency to self-destruct.

'Jana holds the key,' in the view of Billie Jean King, the winner of six Wimbledon singles titles and a record 20 in all events. 'She has always had the ability, now she's got mind and body together. If she plays like she did against Martina, she will win.'

An upset, especially at Wimbledon, would be refreshing for the women's game, which continually is criticised for being a year-round two-horse race (Graf and Seles have combined to win 20 of the last 25 Grand Slam titles and one or the other has featured in 26 of the last 27 finals). The final should be exciting and could be close. Having selected Graf on day one, your correspondent is not inclined to change horses before the finish.

----------------------------------------------------------------------- GRAF v NOVOTNA HEAD TO HEAD ----------------------------------------------------------------------- GRAF LEADS 16-3 Year Venue Surface Round Winner Score 1987 French Open clay last 32 Graf 6-0 6-1 1987 Wimbledon grass last 16 Graf 6-4 6-3 1988 Lipton concrete first Graf 6-2 6-2 1989 European Indoors carpet final Graf 6-1 7-6 1989 Brighton carpet semi-final Graf 4-6 6-3 6-3 1989 New York carpet last 16 Graf 6-3 6-4 1990 French Open clay semi-final Graf 6-1 6-2 1990 Wimbledon grass quarter-final Graf 7-5 6-2 1990 US Open concrete quarter-final Graf 6-3 6-1 1991 Australian Open concrete quarter-final Novotna 5-7 6-4 8-6 1991 Lufthansa Cup clay semi-final Graf 6-1 6-0 1991 Leipzig carpet final Graf 6-3 6-3 1991 New York carpet quarter-final Novotna 6-3 3-6 6-1 1992 Chicago carpet semi-final Novotna 0-6 6-3 7-5 1992 French Open clay last 16 Graf 6-1 6-4 1992 Leipzig carpet final Graf 6-3 1-6 6-4 1992 European Indoors carpet semi-final Graf 6-2 4-6 7-6 1992 Brighton carpet final Graf 4-6 6-4 7-6 1993 Hamburg clay semi-final Graf 6-3 3-6 6-1 -----------------------------------------------------------------------