Wimbledon '97: Novotna swimming against the tide

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The Independent Online
Like grapes in a supermarket, the women's singles at Wimbledon is becoming seedless. Six fell on Sunday and Monica Seles followed yesterday, which makes the theory that the women's game has less depth than a 20p piece as difficult to stand up as the coin itself.

Jana Novotna, Mary Pierce, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Mary Joe Fernandez did not do laps of honour when they took their appointed places in the last 16, but given the way the rest of the fancied runners are performing perhaps they should have done. A seed winning nearly amounts to a shock in the current climate.

No one more so than Novotna, who exudes such a fragile air since her collapse in the 1993 final that you fear she might lose after she's shaken hands on a beaten opponent. She defeated Gala Leon Garcia 6-4, 6-2 although if that suggests a commanding performance the impression is wrong. Advantage Miss Novotna was not just a score but a description of a player who was nearly as bad as she was good.

"I think it was much better," the third seed said before registering the flaws. "Nevertheless there were points I wasn't really happy with. Maybe I was just too focused or too concentrated and sometimes I made a silly mistake. I need to relax and enjoy it." Novotna relax? That will be the day.

Yesterday she explored the extremes in alarmingly quick fashion. Novotna broke Leon Garcia to love in the first game but had two double-faults in her first service game and required three deuces to hold. The serve and volley game, by its charge- to-the-net-and-hope nature, is never an exact science but she is more erratic than most.

Still, she survived to face Fernandez in the fourth round, which put her on solid ground as she surveyed the horizon. "I saw that Monica lost but it doesn't mean the whole bottom of the draw is open. Whoever beat Monica must have played really well." Asked whether the women's game is in a state of flux, she replied: "We are seeing a changing of the guard."

As for her own longevity, the 28-year-old Czech attributed it to a fitness regime. "When I look round the locker room the other players don't have that," she said. "I keep telling myself to work hard but also not only to take from your body but give back. That's the important part for staying healthy."

A fully fledged member of the old battalion is Spain's Sanchez Vicario, who has been in the final for the last two years but who was playing so poorly and infrequently earlier in the year she was being likened to Andre Agassi of the women's tour. Now the comparison to Agassi circa 1992, when he won, is looking more valid.

In the first round the slimmed-down eighth seed's 6-0, 6-0 demolition of Clare Wood was more a reflection on her excellence than on the former British No 1, while yesterday she swept away Argentina's Florencia Labat 6-2, 6-4 in 45 minutes. The fact she lost only six points on her serve underlined the gulf between them.

"I've started better than past years," Sanchez, who last lost to anyone other than Steffi Graf at Wimbledon in 1994, said. "I feel more comfortable on grass and I've had a good preparation." That included a shared, rained- out final, against Novotna at Eastbourne.

Mary Pierce, the ninth seed, was barely troubled by Magui Serna, who was the junior Wimbledon runner-up last year, and who has risen to No 51 in the world rankings in her debut season.

That surge was halted dead in its tracks 6-4, 6-3. She will now meet Sanchez Vicario in what threatens to be the tie of the fourth round.