Tennis: Zvereva's divine comedy

Countdown to Wimbledon: Tauziat thwarted on point of victory while compatriot swears by his skill
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The Independent Online
LOOKING LIKE someone from the ladies' branch of the Mafia in her dark glasses, Natasha Zvereva conjured astonishing triumph from impending disaster at the Direct Line Championships here yesterday. Having lost the first nine games in 25 minutes and looking a good bet to be hustled to defeat in less than half an hour, the 28-year-old from Belarus switched from no-hoper to hit-girl as she rallied to beat France's Nathalie Tauziat, 0-6 7-5 6-3.

It was another astonishing contest to climax a tournament in which Friday's semi-finals seemed to have established a new high for drama and turnarounds. Tauziat, last year's Wimbledon runner-up, came back from 1-5 in the deciding set to give the heave-ho to the golden girl, Anna Kournikova, while Zvereva battled for a record three hours 28 minutes, saving three match points, to edge out Amanda Coetzer.

This was Zvereva's 11th year of competing at Devonshire Park and the best she had managed previously was defeat in the 1988 final by Martina Navratilova. It was also her first tournament win for five years and moves her up to 13th in the rankings. It will do wonders for her confidence but has played havoc with her body.

"I was very tired this morning after the semi-final," said Zvereva. "It was hard to get up from the bed. I am exhausted physically and mentally and will try to recover over the next two days."

Zvereva puts her lack of singles success down to an inability to concentrate. But she has won 20 Grand Slam doubles titles. "Doubles is easy, it comes naturally because I don't have to concentrate that much," she explained after collecting her pounds 48,000 first prize.

Tauziat, the winner here four years ago, started off with a smoothness which must have pleased the Kournikova supporters overlooking the court. For the final they had switched their allegiance to the woman who had knocked out their girl. A large banner "Allez Nathalie" was taped to the wall.

Tauziat, at 31, is an attractively old-fashioned looking player. There is something of the pre-war years about her headband, billowing white pleated skirt and stately walk between points. But there was nothing of the old days about the way she set about Zvereva. The serves were deep and fast, the groundstrokes - in particular the backhand - deadly accurate and the volleying emphatic.

Poor Natasha, despite the backing of the majority of a sell-out crowd, could do nothing right. The first set had drifted away in only 16 minutes and her share of it was a meagre eight points. Things did not immediately get better. It was about then, she admitted later, that a nightmare thought flashed through her mind of that embarrassing 6-0 6-0 defeat in 34 minutes by Steffi Graf in the 1988 French Open final. "I was laughing inside myself and thinking, `It's going to happen again'," she said. Tauziat's thoughts were also wandering at 6-0 3-0. "I had started to think about victory and you don't have to do that."

In that third game of the second set there were ironic cheers as Tauziat netted a forehand - a rare unforced error. Even the audience, it seemed, had awarded the trophy to France. Then, out of the blue, Tauziat dropped serve, going break point down with a double fault and then projecting a backhand long. "She was serving me off the court," Zvereva said. "I hadn't recovered from the semi-final."

The swing was astounding. Having lost nine games in succession - "I don't think I have been in that situation before," Zvereva admitted - Natasha swept up eight of the next 10. As Tauziat's accuracy began to unravel and her authority diminished, Zvereva injected more bite into her serve, more venom and accuracy into her groundstrokes.

Still, Tauziat surely stood on the brink of triumph when, at 4-2 in the second set, she had a break point for a 5-2 lead which would have left her serving for the match. But her forehand in search of that break was faulty and Zvereva escaped. At 5-4, clearly shaken but still in command, Tauziat did serve for the match but got no closer than two points from it. Zvereva missed two points to bring the set level before, offered a third chance, she was grateful to see Tauziat scoop a backhand long.

Tauziat was broken the next time she served, too, and it cost her the second set. This time the damage was done by a brace of forehand errors from the French woman, who slammed her racket to the turf in disgust. After Zvereva had forged ahead in the deciding set Tauziat took herself off for a toilet break but the ploy was not a success. The momentum had swung away from her, but the match was still open as five games in a row went against serve.

Tauziat had a point for 4-4 but blew it, so it came down to Zvereva holding her nerve and her serve for the match after an hour and 40 minutes. All she needed to do, in fact, was keep the ball in court because by now the distracted Tauziat was hitting out every time she swung her racket.

It was another hard day for Zvereva. Still in the doubles with Jana Novotna, she put in another 70 minutes on court winning their semi-final against Conchita Martinez and Patricia Tarabini 6-1, 6-4, then a further 41 minutes against Martina Hingis and Kournikova. When Hingis and Kournikova took the first set 6-4 Zvereva retired, exhausted after another three and a half hours on court today.