Novotna gets chance to rebuild from '93 Wimbledon collapse


WIMBLEDON, England -- The day she lost Wimbledon shadows Jana Novotna.

Whatever else she does in her career, she is burdened by the five points she didn't get, by the match she gave away to Steffi Graf, by the 1993 title she did not win, and finally by the tears she shed on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent.

Today, though, is Novotna's chance for redemption as she meets Graf in the Wimbledon women's semifinals.

The other match pits reigning champion and No. 3 seed Conchita Martinez against No. 2 Aranxta Sanchez Vicario. But that's simply a tennis match to decide the best Spanish player on grass.

No. 4 Novotna against No. 1 Graf is about unfinished business and a shattered dream.

Novotna tries not to talk about the last Wimbledon loss to Graf. She says "we are two years further," that "nobody expected me to do well this year," that she "will sit down with my coach," to talk about the impending rematch.

"It's going to be great playing Graf," she said.

She sounded like she was trying hard to believe that. But Novotna has not been the same player since losing the Wimbledon final in 1993. At this year's French Open, she was up as far as a player can get in tennis, leading Chanda Rubin a set and 5-0, 40-0. And she still lost.

The "choke" label followed Novotna straight into Wimbledon. But she has methodically beaten her foes. Unlike in 1993, when she was the Wimbledon surprise, there has been no cause for celebration.

"Two years ago was a little more exciting," she said. "I beat Gabriela Sabatini. I beat Martina [Navratilova] for the first time in my career. So far now, I have only been playing with players ranked below me. And you are sort of expected to win."

Today, though, she'll be playing a favorite, Graf.

Novotna, of the Czech Republic, will be helpless if Graf unloads another "perfect" set, like the one she unleashed in a quarterfinal rout of Mary Joe Fernandez.

"I've been surprised how well I've been playing here," said Graf, who has beaten Novotna in 23 of 26 meetings. "At the start of the tournament, I didn't feel my best. To be able to produce this kind of tennis, I did not think it was possible."

Graf has lamented the lack of competition in this tournament. She has all but pleaded for Monica Seles to return to the game, to give her a challenge.

But Graf acknowledges "maybe there should be more resistance," in the tournament. The resistance could be supplied by Novotna.

The match between Martinez and Sanchez Vicario may be receiving second billing, but it contains compelling elements. It was Martinez who proved last year that a clay courter could win Wimbledon in the 1990s. And now, Sanchez Vicario is out to prove that she, too, can make the leap from Spanish red clay to English grass.

Martinez may not be the game's most charismatic off-court personality, but on the court she has displayed a unique array of shots. Unlike Graf, she not only has a slice backhand, but she can come over the top of the ball with a delightful and punishing top-spin pass.

"I have a lot of confidence right now," Martinez said.

So apparently does Sanchez Vicario, who bounds around the court, retrieving shot after shot. But she also has dared to attack the net.

"I enjoy myself more on grass now," she said. "I am having fun. That makes a difference. My serve has also improved and I am getting to the net more. And I am also thinking differently out there."

Sanchez Vicario, 6-3 lifetime against Martinez, says she can win Wimbledon now.

"It's my best Wimbledon so far in my career," she said. "My goal was to try to pass the quarterfinals. I'll just try to keep going on."

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