Wimbledon 1997: Troubled Seles out of sorts

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Anyone looking for form lines for the Ladies' Singles at Wimbledon next week would have been utterly banjaxed by the tennis on display at Eastbourne yesterday. For, as the Direct Line Insurance tournament struggled gamely against the elements in trying to stage one quarter-final, two semi-finals and a final in one day, the second and third seeds for Wimbledon, Monica Seles and Jana Novotna, looked to be in less than convincing form. Indeed, Seles admitted after her straight-sets defeat by Brenda Schultz- McCarthy: "If I play the tennis at Wimbledon that I've been playing here I've got no chance."

Seles, whose match had been interrupted on Thursday evening when she had lost the first set 7-5, after being 5-2 up on the Dutch player, resumed at 2-2 in the second set, but could not get herself back into the match, eventually double- faulting on a break point to allow Schultz-McCarthy the chance to serve for the match. The 6ft 2in right-hander, seeded 14 for Wimbledon, promptly blew Seles away in a love-game, finishing with two aces to complete her win.

Seles' father and coach, Karolj, is not with her at this tournament and the world ranked number two became distinctly moist around the eyes as she explained: "I can talk to him on the phone, but it's not the same. I know what's wrong with my game, but I don't want to make it public."

Seles, who is just one of perhaps half a dozen top-ranked players who all have their eyes on the Wimbledon crown which Steffi Graf is unable to defend this year, has won the other three Grand Slam tournaments during her career, but lost 2-6, 1-6 to Graf in her only Wimbledon final in 1992 and has yet to prove her adaptability to grass courts. Mr Seles probably can't get over here quick enough.

Novotna, the Czech player who lost the 1993 Wimbledon final to Graf in tear-inducing circumstances - she was 4-1 up in the final set but "choked" - did little to dispel doubts about her temperament when it comes to the big occasion, despite winning through to the final here.

Serving for the match in her rain-delayed quarter-final against Ai Sugiyama, her Japanese opponent, Novotna managed to drop her serve and burden herself with a third set, which she eventually won 6-4.

With the rain but not the wind relenting for a few hours, Novotna was soon back on Devonshire Park's centre court for a semi-final against Natasha Zvereva of Belarus, and was soon racing to a 5-2 lead in the first set, despite difficult serving conditions. But Novotna then proceeded to drop her own serve three times to allow Zvereva to level at 6-6.

The Czech replicated this form in the tie-break, leading five points to two but eventually surrendering the set by nine points to seven. Novotna's power on serve or on ground strokes, particularly her forehand, was never in doubt, but her lack of guile was often exposed by the less robust but more inventive Zvereva.

Novotna seemed to have asserted a decisive advantage in the second set, which she took 6-0, despite needing eight points in the second game to break Zvereva. But in the final set all the old wobbles resurfaced every time she caught sight of the winning line.

Novotna had three match points on her serve in the ninth game, but lost them all and her service game. Zvereva then saved another match point in the next game to level at 5-5. Novotna eased ahead again, then wasted her fifth match point on Zvereva's serve, but finally took the contest with her sixth match point.

There is little doubt about Novotna's overall form on the tour this year. She has won a tournament in Madrid - beating Seles and Arantxa Sanchez- Vicario - was runner-up to Iva Majoli, the French Open winner, in Hanover, and has appeared in no fewer than five semi-finals, including yesterday's.

But when it comes to Grand Slam tournaments, Novotna has never managed to force herself up and over the hill. It is a trivial point, but you cannot help noticing that she is sponsored by Skoda Cars.