Wimbledon `97: The big test for tough new Novotna

Guy Hodgson on the mind games that will shape today's women's final
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The Independent Online
The Duchess of Kent was wearing black on Thursday evening, perhaps fearing for Jana Novotna. Today the question for the Royal Household will be whether to equip HRH's dress with a shoulder accessory made out of a Wimbledon towel.

Four years ago Novotna was so close to becoming the women's singles champion you expect the engraver had already got as far as J on the winner's name. His curses as he had to make a screeching U-turn to "Steffi Graf" were only drowned out by the sobbing from the Czech, whose misfortune was compounded by having a nationality that alliterates with choker.

From a position of near impregnability, Novotna mananged to collapse to allow Graf her most unlikely title. After two tortuous hours the would- be queen of Wimbledon had lost 7-6, 1-6, 6-4 and was weeping on to the shoulder-pads of the Duchess and being told her time would come again.

Four years later that time has arrived with a final against Martina Hingis and, such is the force behind the teen phenomenon, you fear for the Duchess's clothing again. A mentally-steeled Novotna has the perfect game for the grass of Wimbledon - unfortunately the suspicion is that for serve and volley you should read nerve and volley.

Even in her semi-final, a seemingly straightforward demolition of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, there was a hint of demons lying in wait in the Novotna psyche. A feature of the closing stages was Novotna's over-eagerness to get to the net, moving too soon when her preceding shot had been too shallow or too weak. By then Sanchez Vicario was too holed to take adavantage, something that is unlikely to happen with Hingis, who has won 43 out of 44 matches this season.

So, can Novotna metamorphose from the girl who flopped to the woman whose bottle is made of something less brittle than glass? "If I was a choker I wouldn't be ranked No 3 in the world," is her reply. "In '93 I still had to prove to myself and everybody else that I am a good player. I really wanted to do well. Sometimes I wanted it too much.

"My outlook has changed. When I'm playing I want to win 100 per cent and I'm fighting very much but I've realised that tennis is not everything, that there is life outside."

That mental adjustment has come because the 28-year-old's father is in hospital after a recurrence of an illness that first occurred two years ago. "It's nothing serious," she said, refusing to amplify what is wrong with him. "I'm sure he will get better. My attitude now is what is tennis compared to health. I have struck a happy medium between enjoying tennis and enjoying life."

Hingis, at 16, has no skeletons lurking in the recesses of her mind except for the upset in the French final when Iva Majoli ended fanciful notions of a Grand Slam. Even then the Swiss girl whose life has been geared to be a tennis player had a ready-made alibi in lack of tennis after a knee operation caused by a fall off a horse.

"When I stepped on court in Paris I wasn't in great shape after the surgery," she said. "I wasn't 100 per cent there. This time I'm really looking forward to it."

If Hingis wins she will be the youngest winner since Lottie Dod let go of her teddy bear to win the 1887 women's singles at the age of 15 years 10 months. History beckons Hingis, but if anyone is equipped to accept the invitation it is the Swiss girl who has one Grand Slam title to her credit already and whose life has been one long preparation to be a tennis champion.

In the semi-finals her serve was next to hopeless against Anna Kournikova but such was the authority of her groundstrokes, so often were the furthest lines picked out, the Russian was run off her feet.

Named in deference to her mother's admiration for Martina Navratilova, the copy will emulate the original if she can bypass Novotna so often she fears to charge forward. "I'm a different player," she said, comparing herself to the nine-times champion. "I spend much more time on the baseline. She just loved the Wimbledon tournament, especially the Centre Court. Hopefully I will love it one day, as well."

The irony is that Novotna's at-the-net style makes her a much more natural successor to Navratilova than the namesake. She has less reason than most to love Centre Court but will warm to it if she succeeds today. The Duchess's dry- cleaner will be happy, too.

HINGIS v NOVOTNA: HEAD-TO-HEAD

1995 Hamburg (clay) R16 Hingis 6-1 2-6 6-2

1996 US Open (hard) QF Hingis 7-6 6-4

Zurich (carpet) F Novotna 6-2 6-2

Chicago (carpet) SF Novotna 7-5 6-4

1997 Lipton (hard) SF Hingis 6-3 2-6 6-4

Hingis leads 3-2

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