Wimbledon: Novotna in title-winning form

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JANA NOVOTNA, so close to being a Wimbledon winner in 1993 and 1997, has proved she is in the right form to make it third time lucky.

Lack of experience, Novotna believes, cost her the title five years ago when she developed stage fright and threw away a third-set lead to lose to Steffi Graf. Injury took its toll last year. The personable Czech pulled an abdominal muscle in the semi-finals and struggled to reach the final where she lost in three sets to Martina Hingis.

"To win Wimbledon you need to be lucky, you have to be healthy and you have to play well," said the 29-year-oldNovotna before the start of her latest Wimbledon campaign today.

All three factors came together when Novotna won the Eastbourne tournament on Saturday - her first grass-court final win in 12 years of professional tennis.

The world No 3 looked fighting fit as she delighted the Eastbourne crowd with a master class in grass-court tennis to defeat Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 6-1, 7-5.

Novotna's deft touch at the net, her energetic running and intelligent game reminded the crowd that grass demands a finesse which is too often lacking in the modern game where slugging it out from the baseline has become the norm.

In the last five years Novotna has never lost before the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. Last year's injury occurred as she played the first point of her semi-final against Sanchez Vicario.

"It was pretty bad," Novotna said. "It went through my mind what would happen if I had to default the final." She did get through the final, losing 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 to Hingis, but was then forced to take six weeks off for the injury to heal. Since then the muscle has given her trouble on several other occasions and Novotna wears an abdominal support on court. Her unorthodox serving action, which sees her arch her spine to an awkward angle, does not help. "Sometimes I do wish that I had a much easier serve but what can I do?" she asked.

Seeded third at the All England Club this week, Novotna is in Hingis's half of the draw and meets fellow Czech Sandra Kleinova in the first round. Teenagers Anna Kournikova and Venus Williams are both in her section but Novotna refused to be drawn on their prospects.

Graf, she believes, will be dangerous in her comeback to Wimbledon after the seven-times champion missed last year's event through injury.

"She was playing extremely well, she was moving well," Novotna said. "She definitely will be a threat."

Hingis became the youngest Wimbledon champion in the Open era when she won last year at the age of 16 years, nine months and five days but Novotna believes youth will not prevail this time.

"Experience at Wimbledon will play a major role," she said. "I think to win Wimbledon you need to get into the final once or twice first."

Just like Jana Novotna has done, in fact.