Navratilova slips on road to 10 Novotna wins, 6-4, 6-4, to oust nine-time champ, will meet Graf in final


WIMBLEDON, England -- Watching Jana Novotna outrun, outhit and outthink Martina Navratilova on Centre Court in their women's semifinal match yesterday stirred a repetitious thought.

Too good, too good, too good.

She broke Navratilova twice in the first set to establish the tone of her 6-4, 6-4 victory that sent her hurtling into the 100th Wimbledon women's championship match. She'll play No. 1 seed Steffi Graf, who beat Conchita Martinez, 7-6 (7-0), 6-3.

Novotna never looked nervous against Navratilova, who was on a seemingly unstoppable drive to a finals encounter with Graf and a possible 10th singles title here.

"I thought I was at a little bit of a disadvantage," Novotna said. "Martina has won this tournament nine times. She feels that she owns the Centre Court. She felt like at home there.

"I was the one who didn't play one match during the whole tournament on the Centre Court, so I had to overcome so many things. I just think that I've done it so well, and I played just the perfect match."

Every step Novotna took was slow and measured. Every bounce of the ball, studied. Every swing of the racket, precise.

"My main trouble was that the court was really slow on her side and really fast on mine," Navratilova said, jokingly. "She had something going on with the blades of grass. She just played great."

Navratilova, 36, knew from the first game that it was going to be a long day -- "Though not long enough, as it turned out," Navratilova said. "It was the first game, I never even missed a first serve, and I almost lost the game.

"I never got going, and she just played the whole match on the same superior level. . . . I was on my heels the whole match."

Every service game was an adventure for Navratilova, who before yesterday had lost her serve only twice in the entire tournament. Yesterday, she lost it twice in the first set and once in the second, and it could easily have been more.

But while her serve slipped and her reactions were slow and her legs unable to carry her fast enough to hit Novotna's blistering cross-court backhands, Navratilova would not blame the age difference (Novotna is 24) for the loss.

"I had a bad day, but age wasn't the reason," she said. "The only part age plays is that it makes it more difficult to get going when things don't go your way. That's where age comes in. But Jana just did everything better than she has ever done it before. She's always been aggressive, but today, she was also very accurate.

"This is the best match she has ever played, and if she can maintain it she can win the tournament. She has beaten Steffi before, and her game always gives Steffi fits."

As the two were leaving the court, Navratilova turned and waved a message to the crowd.

"I said I will be back," she said. "I haven't yet thought about life after tennis, but I'm sure it's a hell of a lot better than life after death.

"I'll be back, if I feel I have a chance to win. I used to say I wanted to be the youngest champion. Now, I'd like to be the oldest."

There was a moment in the second set, when Navratilova seemed to be gaining momentum. In game five, she was down a set and a break and facing two more break opportunities for Novotna, at 15-40.

But two net cords that rolled tantalizingly along the tape and fell over for winners brought Navratilova back to deuce, and she held.

Her energy level picked up and she fought to 15-30 on Novotna's serve, before Novotna pulled away.

"At that point, I really did not worry," Novotna said of the net cords. "I had one break, and that is enough to win the whole match, and I just held onto that. But she really was lucky, and I was just a little concerned the match might turn around a little bit, and it looked like it, when I was down 15-30."

Earlier in her career, Novotna might have panicked and rushed. But yesterday she bounced the ball a few extra times, took a deep breathand methodically went through the motions of service.

"I just concentrate on each ball as much as I can," she said. "I say, 'Don't worry about it. It is Centre Court, but the ball is the same on all courts. Just play the ball.' "

"Getting to the finals is very important to me," Novotna said. "But even more is that this was the first time I've beaten Martina in my whole career. I've beaten her at Wimbledon, at the Centre Court, and I've beaten her on grass. So, this is like, unbelievable. I played so good!"

Now she meets Graf, who had an interesting first set against Martinez before finding her stride in the second set and winning.

"If you are down 4-1, 30-0, you obviously feel like the set is almost gone," Graf said. "But I just wanted at that stage, to get my service game and to just make the first set tough, and I was able to get out of it and win the first set. I felt a lot better, sure. After seeing Martina having a tough match and you are down, you say, 'Come on, get yourself together.' "

Graf did, getting back on serve and then steamrolling Martinez for seven points in the tiebreaker.

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