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Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Novotna's new-found freedom

WHATEVER ELSE she achieves in the twilight of her career, Jana Novotna will, perhaps unfairly, always be remembered for the one that got away.

In the 1993 Wimbledon singles final she led Steffi Graf 4-1 in the final set, before dramatically crumbling to defeat and then weeping on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent, in what became one of the most enduring images of recent Wimbledons.

Four years later there were no tears but another final loss to the 16- year-old Martina Hingis - and playful resignation instead of disappointment, snatching the trophy from Hingis and pretending to run away with it.

Then it was widely held that Novotna had had her last royal appointment. But instead she rose to the challenge laid down by the game's new generation of players to finally take a Wimbledon title last year and, most crucially of all, began to enjoy her tennis more.

"I started to enjoy myself. In the past people thought I was not a nice person because I didn't talk a lot. Lately the misconceptions have changed, which is important to me."

Ironically, Novotna's new-found willingness to speak her mind has landed her in trouble on the professional tennis circuit. The Czech gave an in- depth interview at the French Open earlier this year which led to headlines proclaiming that she had called the world No 1 Hingis "stupid" and the Russian Anna Kournikova as a celebrity "more on looks than playing skills".

"Most of the things that I had said were left out or twisted in a very wrong way and I feel very sorry about that," Novotna insists. "Unfortunately most of the positive things I said about the other players were left out. I have talked to the players and explained the whole situation. Everything seems to be fine."

On court, she is looking forward to defending her singles title with a new-found sense of fulfilment. An ankle injury suffered at the French Open put her Wimbledon title defence in jeopardy, but intensive treatment twice a day has seen her back on court quicker than had at first been first thought possible.

"If I play I don't think I'll be as nervous as last year because I've won once and if I don't do it again that will be fine," she said. "In 30 years I will still be remembered as a Wimbledon champion."

There seems little doubt that she will be fit enough to begin the defence of her title on Centre Court today. Whether or not she can still be on that court come finals day is open to question, but one thing is certain, she will enjoy attempting to prove the doubters wrong.