Finally, tears of joy for Novotna Two-time runner-up turns back Tauziat for Wimbledon title


WIMBLEDON, England -- This time, Jana Novotna wept in triumph.

She was the one who marched through the stands to hug and kiss her friends and family. She held tight to the outstretched hands of the Duchess of Kent, who smiled excitedly and told her that the third time was the charm, after all.

And there she was, cradling the gold winner's plate, on the greatest victory lap in tennis, as cheers and tears poured down from the Centre Court stands.

Yesterday, Novotna buried the past with one glorious triumph, beating Nathalie Tauziat, 6-4, 7-6 (7-2), to claim Wimbledon's women's title.

It was Novotna's first Grand Slam victory, a popular victory for the people's player.

Rarely has an athlete ever won so many fans by enduring so many championship defeats. She lost in a sensational collapse to Steffi Graf in 1993 and cried on the Duchess of Kent's shoulder. And she lost to Martina Hingis in 1997.

But this is the lesson to be learned from Novotna. She tried. And tried. And finally won Wimbledon.

"I always said that winning one Grand Slam would mean so much to me, and winning Wimbledon means -- well, I guess it means everything," she said.

She dedicated the trophy to her coach, Hana Mandlikova, a former player and Grand Slam champion. She thanked her mother, Liba, who had flown in the night before to see this one special match. And she talked excitedly about some of the old-fashioned virtues that went into creating this moment.

In an age of instant sporting gratification, Novotna, a 29-year-old from the Czech Republic, stands as a reminder that sometimes success takes time.

"I think it's really important always to believe in yourself and to have a dream," she said. "But you have to go out, you have to work every day, you have to do a lot of planning. And you have to just keep on working from one year to another and this is what I have been waiting for and working for."

At this Wimbledon, Novotna, the No. 3 seed, beat Venus Williams and beat Hingis, the world's No. 1 player. But more importantly, she didn't beat herself.

"I knew this would be the toughest match of the championship," she said. 'I really felt like the match against Martina [Hingis] would be a piece of cake, compared to this one."

To be honest, this wasn't a great final. The weather was gray and cold, the players were nervous and the atmosphere was subdued.

Tauziat, a 30-year-old from France appearing in her first Grand Slam final, is a good grass-court player, well-schooled in the game's fundamentals. She attacked second serves, set up volleys and tried to keep the pressure on Novotna.

And not for one moment did Tauziat buy into the idea that Novotna would choke.

"She's a fighter," Tauziat said. "Always, when they talk about Jana Novotna, they talk about how she lost in Wimbledon against Graf. But now she has won the championship, she has won Wimbledon. Stop talking about the past."

The first set was deliberate, a pace dictated by Novotna's inconsistent serving.

Then Novotna won it with her cunning, and her ability to lift her game with her volleys. She slammed an overhead to break Tauziat's serve to go up 4-3, and claimed the set by finally holding her own serve.

But Novotna appeared to tense up in the second set. She somehow held her serve in the second game despite, three double faults, including one where the ball nearly flew out of the court.

And when she had a chance to serve out the title at 5-4, she failed to close, punching two volleys wide and watching as Tauziat buried a backhand return to climb back into the match.

But in the tie-breaker, Novotna steadied her nerves, got to match point with a backhand cross-court volley, and then, took a deep breath and waited for one last serve.

She slammed a forehand down the line, watched it skip by Tauziat, and sank ever-so-slowly to the turf, crying and shouting, "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

And then she savored all the great moments of Wimbledon's victory ceremonies, presided over by the Duke of Kent, the president of the All England Club, and his wife, the Duchess of Kent. There's no music, no fireworks, and hardly an announcement, just the simplicity of decades of tradition, as winner and loser are lauded by all.

So, what did the Duchess of Kent tell a triumphant Novotna?

Novotna said, "She was very pleased that I have finally won this championship, and she was just so sure, she said, 'What was the big thing? I told you last year that, if you make it to the finals for the third time, it will be third time lucky, and you will make it.' "

Novotna said she replied to the Duchess: "I'm glad I have finally made it. And I told her, she was absolutely right."

After so many defeats and so many tears, Novotna earned something special.

She got a happy ending.

Pub Date: 7/05/98

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