Tennis: Wimbledon '93 / Novotna steps up in perfect style to deny Navratilova: The former champion's quest for a 10th title is thwarted in straight sets by the aggression and confidence of a 24-year-old Czech

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AFTER becoming only the 10th player to defeat Martina Navratilova in 125 matches at Wimbledon, Jana Novotna could be forgiven in her excitement yesterday for describing her performance as 'perfect' and 'incredible'. If she can repeat the form against Steffi Graf in tomorrow's final, the defending champion could be in trouble.

Ladbrokes, no mugs, especially when assessing a two-horse race, were offering 2-9 for Navratilova to win the semi-final and extend a 7-0 record against her Czech opponent. Novotna was priced at 3-1 to win the match and 9-1 to win in straight sets. The score was 6-4, 6-4.

Novotna was not tempted to make an investment. 'Not at all,' she said. 'That would have been the first mistake I would have made.' She did not make many, serving powerfully and playing low returns to sabotage the nine-times champion's volleys.

Centre Court spectators, pleased at first to see the eighth seed making a contribution to the match, soon realised that an upset was taking shape. Novotna, who took Monica Seles to three sets on a concrete court in the 1991 Australian Open final but had not previously advanced beyond the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, confirmed at last that her attacking style is tailored for the lawns.

The 24-year-old from Brno broke Navratilova twice in the opening set, and remained calm after dropping her serve at 5-2, producing an ace to convert her third set point. Navratilova was growing accustomed to watching Novotna take a step forward on the front foot, point the toe of her trailing foot, and arch backwards before testing her with consistently potent deliveries.

Matters did not improve for the 36-year-old in the second set. 'Come on]' she urged herself after saving a break point with an ace in the opening game, but this merely delayed the inevitable. Novotna, who was now confident enough to ace on second serves, broke in the third game, taking the pace off a backhand return and making her opponent appear a step too slow in moving to attempt to make a return. Navratilova was acutely conscious of this, and tossed the spare ball angrily behind her.

Though the net cord was kind to Novotna on several occasions, Navratilova had reason to look to the heavens in gratitude when two shots were diverted in her favour to help save break points in the fifth game. Novotna was content to play steadily towards the conclusion, then sank to her knees, scarcely able to believe her success, when Navratilova played a backhand into the net off a second serve after 82 minutes.

As the most prolific champion prepared to bid farewell to Wimbledon's Aorangi Park, she gave no indication of heading for Jurassic. 'I'll be back,' she told the crowd, raising a finger of appreciation to their standing ovation.

'It's a long year, but as of now I'm planning to be back,' she said later. 'I don't think I would play if I don't think I stand a chance to win. I'm not a glutton for punishment. I wouldn't play just to get to the round of 16 and then get blown out by somebody. I think that will be the deciding factor: No 1, is the heart there, and No 2, do I still feel that I can win?'

Though disappointed not to be marking the 100th women's championships with a 12th appearance in the final, Navratilova seemed almost light-hearted in defeat. 'What went wrong? The court was really slow on her half, and was really fast on mine,' she joked. 'She just played great. I never got going, and she just made me play every shot. I was digging the whole time, which I expected. I thought I would just have a few more better plays on the ball than I did.'

Had she been nervous? 'I never had a chance to get nervous. Right before the match I was just thrilled to be here, so I didn't lose the match because of nerves. I was lousy on the practice court, but I thought it would come around. I didn't play well, obviously, but I don't know how much she (Novotna) had to do with that. Some, certainly, but not all of it. I would say the majority of it was me, but she played really, really well. That was the best she ever played. I was on my heels the whole match. If she plays like that she can definitely win the final, there's no question about that.'

What would keep her going? 'Life keeps me going. I got my butt kicked today, but I had a great time. I'm just disappointed that I wasn't able to raise the level of my game, but I think I can still do it. I wanted to be the youngest champion, so I guess now the goal is to be the oldest one.

'Today I had a bad day. Age is not why I lost, but it certainly makes things more difficult to get going when you're older and things don't quite go your way.'

Such thoughts were far from Novotna's mind as she digested what she had accomplished against the odds. 'I was coming into this match with a little disadvantage,' she said. 'Martina has won this tournament nine times and she feels that she owns the Centre Court. She felt at home there. I was the one who didn't play one match during the whole tournament on the Centre Court, so I had to overcome so many things.

'Getting to the final does not really mean a lot to me. I think what means more to me is that this was the first time I've beaten Martina in my whole career. I've beaten her at Wimbledon, on the Centre Court, and on grass. So this is, like, unbelievable.'

Shock waves continued to reverberate when Graf commenced her semi- final against Conchita Martinez. The Spaniard, inspired by Novotna's success, took a 4-1, 30-0 lead, and the crowd braced itself for a second sensation.

The champion steadied herself, countered her opponent's solid serves and impressive ground-strokes and demoralised her by winning a first-set tie-break 7-0. On the hour, Graf broke Martinez to take a 3-1 lead in the second set, after which she controlled the match to win, 7-6, 6-3, in 72 minutes.

Graf and Navratilova have dominated Wimbledon for the past 11 years, and the 24-year-old German shared her rival's loss. 'In a way, yes, it is disappointing,' Graf said. 'It is always special when we play against each other, the confrontation of a left- hander coming in and someone who is playing from the back. I think that's why everybody was looking forward to it.'

Still, it is only a game. As Navratilova said, when asked if she thought about life after tennis: 'I'm looking forward to it very much. I think it beats the hell out of life after death, that's for sure.'

Edberg's quest, page 37

--------------------------------------------------------------------- NAVRATILOVA'S CONQUERORS AT WIMBLEDON --------------------------------------------------------------------- 1973 Patti Hogan 3rd 6-4 6-4 1974 Mima Jausovec 1st 6-4 3-6 6-3 1975 Margaret Court QF 6-3 6-4 1976 Chris Evert SF 6-3 6-0 1977 Betty Stove QF 9-8 3-6 6-1 1980 Chris Evert SF 4-6 6-4 6-2 1981 Hana Mandlikova SF 7-5 4-6 6-1 1988 Steffi Graf F 5-7 6-2 6-1 1989 Steffi Graf F 6-2 6-7 6-1 1991 Jennifer Capriati QF 6-4 7-5 1992 Monica Seles SF 6-2 6-7 6-4 1993 Jana Novotna SF 6-4 6-4 ---------------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)