Tennis: Wimbledon - Novotna revels as predator

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS moisture about here yesterday. There always seems to be when Jana Novotna is in town.

When the Duchess Of York packed her sou'wester and mac to attend the All England Club the motive may have been either the overhead conditions or the realisation that Novotna was down to play.

When the pair met after the 1993 final the Czech gifted to Steffi Graf, the effect was as if the good lady had suffered a burst hot water-bottle on the shoulder pad. When Novotna gets emotional there is probably an appreciable rise in sea level.

It was the beginning of the Czech's 13th attempt at the singles crown yesterday. She has reached two finals, a semi and four quarters and so has been a bridesmaid more often than Liz Taylor's sister.

Novotna's is the women's game most suited to grass, but her brain seems ill-programmed to win a competition of any description. Her rare success at Eastbourne at the weekend was the first grass court title of her career. She has never won a Grand Slam. When Novotna is in combat, an opponent has a chance until the moment she has to sit down at the table to sign a surrender treaty.

It is the big games and the big names which bug Jana, however, so yesterday's first-round appointment with her compatriot Sandra Kleinova never seemed to carry the right recipe for collapse. Novotna has been in the leading five for considerably longer than Ginger managed, a record she has compiled by dealing cleanly with the little furry things of the circuit.

Yesterday's match was effectively over in one moment in the second game. Kleinova achieved something very close to a splits on the slippery surface and was a limping figure from then on. This was spotted by the keen-eyed animal circling the pastures, and from that moment Kleinova was being run down. She had emerged with a ball holder clipped to her back and soon there was a further ugly addition to the apparel when an elastic support was applied to her right knee. At 2-3 in the second set she was allowed the respite of a rain break and hobbled into the long grass, but that just suspended the kill.

The 20-year-old continued to slide around on her return and prodded suspiciously at the surface. She looked pitifully at the chair for assistance and then Novotna had the good grace to come in and finish it at 6-2, 6-2.

The hunter enjoyed this short day's work. "I felt pretty good," Novotna said. "The court felt almost like a hard court with good bounces and, today, very heavy weather.

"I wanted to really finish this match and didn't want to stay out there too long. Of course there were a couple of mistakes I should eliminate along the way, but it's pretty much always like that. I just need to make it a little better, a little tighter."

If Novotna does manage to conquer the great battle which the nerves have waged against her it could be that we will lose a piece of the SW19 family jewels for ever. The dear old Venus Rosewater Dish (which a certain American may think was named for her) has been lofted into the skies since 1886, but could soon be on view in a boot sale. This is the sort of home Novotna finds for her trophies.

At Eastbourne, the great burghers of the Direct Line Insurance championship presented not a cheque with the pot, but rather a pot to the Czech, an elaborate ceramic affair with spoons commemorating champions of the past. Novotna likes this award, but has yet to devise a suitable location for it in her Belgian home in Antwerp. "It was very unusual, yes," she said, "but I haven't had time to look at it properly yet. Actually, to tell you the truth, it's still in the car."

Novotna herself is likely to be found on the back seat covered in a blanket. She played six matches in the last two days when weather intervened at Eastbourne, and her main rival at this stage is tiredness. "I knew it was an advantage to start on time," she said.

"Luckily I got to finish my match." On a day when the courts were slippery and the balls hung heavily in the damp air, the priority was safety. Hang the fancy stuff, just get through to the second round. France's Sandrine Testud and Nathalie Tauziat, both seeds, managed that, but both had their problems.

Testud, the 14th seed, lost the first three games against Australia's Rennae Stubbs and was broken again before she took the first set, taking the tie-break 7-5. Only then was the resistance broken and the second set went in a rush, 6-0 in 18 minutes.

That was a relatively simple task, however, compared to Tauziat's match. The 16th seed lost the first set to Japan's Haruka Inoue, who was playing only her second match at Wimbledon, before rank told and she won 2-6, 6-1, 6-3. She will now play last year's French Open winner, Iva Majoli.

n Southport's Barry Cowan will resume his men's singles first round match today at one-set all against the world No 98, Hendrik Dreekman. The German leads 6-7, 7-6, 5-3. Britain's Chris Wilkinson and Andrew Richardson, who were due to play yesterday, did not make it on to court due to the weather and will play today.