Tennis / Wimbledon '94: Sukova to match talent with triumph: Under-achiever has the chance to shake off the 'nearly' tag but first she must overcome Navratilova - Guy Hodgson reports on the tall Czech who faces a towering challenge on Court One today

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The Independent Online
AT 6ft 2in Helena Sukova does not loom little in anyone's mind. At the net she has what the other women players refer to as 'presence' and by that they mean she is damn difficult to get the ball over, round or by.

Martina Navratilova would testify to that. She may be the best woman player to have stalked a baseline, but she has not always been able to dismiss Sukova in the way she normally ushers players of lower rank from her court. They have, as the Americans would put it, a history.

In 1983-84 it appeared that Navratilova had merely to turn up at a tournament and the winner's cheque was made out in her name. For 74 successive matches she prevailed in a streak in which she plucked Wimbledon (twice), US Open (twice), Australian and French titles like they were fruit from a tree. She had already won dollars 1m for winning four successive majors and it seemed a formality that she would complete the Grand Slam proper by taking them all in the same calendar year.

At the Australian Open (then played in December), however, she met Sukova on one of those days when the young Czech's play matched her potential and Navratilova lost 1-6, 6-3, 7-5. It was one of the great upsets in modern tennis history.

Sukova also ended Navratilova's mastery on grass (69 matches) at Eastbourne in 1987 and has three victories in their last seven meetings, including a win in their last encounter, the US Open last September. It is little wonder, then that Navratilova was circumspect when she viewed their encounter today on Court One.

'There's a lot of baggage when I play her,' the nine-times Wimbledon champion said. 'I'll have to keep playing the ball and not get into the past, because it is easy to get overwhelmed by it.'

Sukova, too, has a few trunks and a suitcase worth of involvement with today's opponent. For a start, her mother, Vera, a Wimbledon finalist in 1962, coached the fledgling Navratilova in their native Czechoslovakia and she was affected more than most when the player she saw as a heroine defected to the West in the late Seventies. From being an idol, Navratilova became persona non grata. No newspaper mentioned her name, her Wimbledon exploits were pointedly ignored.

But when Sukova turned professional at 16 in 1981 it was Navratilova who helped her through the adjustment phase and their paths have intertwined since, often with thunderous consequences. Thirty times, in fact, and although the victory deficit is 25-5 against the younger woman she will arrive at the All England Club today with more hope than most players facing 'The Legend', who will be backed by an audience willing her to defy her 37 years and win a 10th title.

'You like meeting some players,' Sukova, 29, said after her 6-3, 6-2 defeat of Germany's Silke Frankl on Saturday, 'and Martina is one of them. Perhaps it's because you play better against them, but you look forward to certain opponents. Martina brings out the best in me.'

Which cannot be said of everyone because Sukova is one of the under-achievers on the women's tour. Naturally gifted, she reached No 4 (March 1985) in the world but most observers feel she has not done justice to her talent. The fact she has made it to four Grand Slam finals and failed to win any rather sums her up.

'If I was looking from the outside, I'd wonder why I haven't won a Grand Slam,' she said. 'I'd think 'she has all the shots, why hasn't she done more?' But when you get on court it's different.'

She points to the quality of the opponents (Evert, Graf and Navratilova) she has met as to why she has not taken the final step on to the top tier, and to fatigue at last year's US Open, where she was beaten in straight sets by Graf. 'I was very tired,' she said. 'I had women's and mixed doubles matches as well and when I met Steffi it caught up with me. Two out of three titles wasn't so bad.'

That is probably the crux about Sukova: she does not suffer like true champions do when they are beaten. 'I know I've lost to players I shouldn't have done and maybe I need to be more confident. But maybe I'd be a different person, too.'

Navratilova might also be a different prospect without the emotional charge the Centre Court brings her. Before the tournament began she said she feared bowing out of Wimbledon on an outside court and that will prey on her mind today.

So will Sukova, and Navratilova will be more aware than anyone that her bete noire of the past is only playing her now because Mary Pierce's withdrawal pushed the younger woman into the bottom half of the draw. Fate, it seems, has drawn them together.

(Photograph omitted)