Her capitulation from 4-1, 40-30 in the final set to give Steffi Graf a fifth title, 7-6, 1-6, 6-4, began with a double fault. The second serve was heading in the general direction of St Mary's Church and was the start of one of the worst cases of 'choking' ever witnessed on the world's most famous Centre Court.
'Choking' is the term for a player's loss of nerve at a crucial moment. Actors and singers occasionally forget their words, but can be prompted. A tennis player is isolated. The same applies in golf, where 'yips' on the green have cost many a title, Bernhard Langer's putt in the Ryder Cup is readily called to mind. Snooker, lacking the physical endeavour to be classed as a sport by some writers, also induces moments of mental frailty. Steve Davis's miss on a pottable black which gave Dennis Taylor the opportunity to win the World Snooker Championship is a classic example. Similarly, a player in a team sport can feel all alone bearing the burden of responsibility. Consider the penalty misses by Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle in the World Cup semi-final in Italy.
It is not always what can be seen that makes games fascinating, but the inner struggle, a perspiration of the mind.
Gabriela Sabatini, who was defeated by Novotna in straight sets in the quarter-finals, had the embarrassing experience at the recent French Open of losing a 6-1, 5-1 lead against Mary Joe Fernandez. Sabatini double- faulted on match point, failed to convert four other opportunities, and lost 10-8 in the final set after saving four match points. Sabatini, it may be recalled, twice served for the Wimbledon title when defeated by Graf in 1991.
The 24-year-old Novotna's habit of seizing up after her abundant talent has taken her to the threshold of a major singles title has been well documented; hence the nickname, No-No Novotna.
Though few observers could have anticipated such a spectacular collapse on Saturday, the mortgages of regular tennis reporters were not being wagered on a Novotna triumph even as she arched her back and prepared to serve, one point away from
5-1 in the final set.
This was not the case at Sandown Park, I am informed. The 'sharks' in the betting ring decided that Novotna's price of 3-1 to win the match was too generous to be ignored. With Novotna leading 4-1, many of those punters returned their attention to the horses and ways of spending their Wimbledon gains.
After playing splendidly against an opponent who was straining for consistency with her famed forehand, Novotna had reached the fraught stage when her actions would dictate whether she won or lost the most important match of her career.
Jo Durie, the stalwart of British women's tennis, once described critical errors in one of her matches as 'a good double fault' to convey that she had been bold in going for her serves. By that reckoning, some of Novotna's double faults could be described as outstanding. She followed the one in the fifth game with three more to beckon Graf back in to the match at
4-4. By now, the Czech's racket hand had become as shaky as Martina Navratilova's towards the end of Thursday's semi-final.
The climax was Kafkaesque: dark foreboding, self-destruction, tears on the compassionate shoulder of a duchess. Perhaps there is something in the psyche of Czechoslovakian-born players that senses scudding clouds beyond the sunshine.
Jaroslav Drobny was no 'choker'. The only thing he ever ran away from was his nation's repressive regime. Even so, he was defeated in two finals before succeeding against Ken Rosewall, the perennial Wimbledon loser, in 1954.
Ivan Lendl, whose forlorn quest for the Wimbledon title is a cause celebre, has won everything else. Yet he was considered a 'choker' by many of his peers until he retrieved a two-set deficit to triumph against John McEnroe at the 1984 French Open.
Novotna's coach, Hana Mandlikova, whose graceful talent ought to have bridged the generation gap between the Chris Evert/Navratilova era and the emergence of Graf, won the French, United States and Australian championships but lost two Wimbledon finals.
Navratilova, the most prolific of Wimbledon singles champions, with nine titles, has also experienced moments of uncertainty. Her errors in the 1987 French Open final, for instance, eased Graf towards her first Grand Slam title. As Navratilova said at the time: 'I don't know how many new ways I can find to lose matches.'
What befell Novotna on Saturday may make people less surprised that players surround themselves with retinues of friends and gurus to help lift their spirits in times of need.
Novotna has been consulting Dr Jim Loehr, an American sports psychologist, and her damaged confidence was in a state of rehabilitation as soon as her tears had been dried away. The art of positive thinking dominated her interviews. 'I don't think it's a horrible experience,' she said. 'I just feel it's very disappointing being really so close. I had the chance to lead for 5-1. Unfortunately, I double-faulted. But, you know, I decided to go for it the whole time, because it worked before in the matches against Sabatini and against Martina. I don't think it was nerves. I just went for it, and it didn't work at all.
'I would play exactly the same way, like I did today. I think I should be confident more than ever after this tournament. I just tried to stay focused on every point and just tried to work very hard. But it is known that once Steffi gets going she is very difficult to stop. And that is exactly what happened. I felt very good on the court. It's just a sad ending.'
Graf, having made a characteristic clean execution, startled security officers by running up the steps to embrace her family in the guest box. Then, looking across at her distressed opponent, the 24-year-old German was as moved as everybody else in the arena.
When all was quiet, the line from Kipling over the door to the Centre Court came to mind:
'If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same. . .'
----------------------------------------------------------------- WOMEN'S FINAL STATISTICS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Graf won 7-6, 1-6, 6-4, in 2hr 14min. GRAF NOVOTNA 70 per cent First serve in 48 per cent 6 Aces 3 3 Double faults 7 55 per cent Points won on serve 57 per cent 102mph 1st serve speed (max) 112mph 92mph 1st serve speed (ave) 97mph 21/35 Points won at net 38/65 43/101 Points won at baseline 34/71 49 per cent Total points won 51 per cent 8/14 Game points won 10/17 5/11 Break points won 6/12 -----------------------------------------------------------------
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