WIMBLEDON, England -- Jana Novotna had streaked through this Wimbledon like a comet. Her mental and physical game had merged into a wonderful blaze of light that had blinded Gabriela Sabatini and Martina Navratilova in quarterfinal and semifinal victories.
Novotna, the No. 8 seed, the Czech woman who would be the biggest dark horse to win Wimbledon since eighth-seeded American Karen Hantze-Susman won 31 years ago, was in the midst of doing exactly the same thing to No. 1 Steffi Graf, when all at once, the fire went out.
Novotna fell back to earth in the final set of the 100th women's Wimbledon championship match yesterday, enabling Graf to claim her fifth title, 7-6 (8-6), 1-6, 6-4.
Novotna was up 4-1 and serving at 40-30 for what would have been a nearly insurmountable 5-1 advantage when she double-faulted.
Graf won the game, held serve and then broke Novotna again, when three more double faults suddenly had Graf even at 4-4.
"I was very happy in the first few seconds after winning the match," said Graf. "And then I saw her. I've been there. All players have been there, and I really felt for her. When you are ahead like that, up 4-1 and serving, you are in position and you have to win."
But Novotna didn't win in one of the most memorable women's matches Centre Court has seen.
Wimbledon is for winners, but Novotna will be remembered here for the competitiveness that brought her within two games of victory, for one of the most amazing on-court collapses on record, and for her collapse into the arms of the Duchess of Kent.
British royalty is not supposed to be touched, but Novotna touched everyone else on Centre Court yesterday. Why not one of the royals?
"I've won two doubles titles and a mixed-doubles title here," Novotna said, her face still red from the tears. "So I kind of know the Duchess. When she came up to me and said 'Jana, don't worry, I believe that you will do it. I know you will win Wimbledon,' I just couldn't hold back the emotion anymore and I let go.' "
She put her head on the Duchess' shoulder in front of the cheering crowd and cried.
Afterward, Novotna put on a brave front and refused to admit that her nervous system went to pieces. She refused to say that she choked.
"I think I leave here feeling even better about my game," she said. "Everyone talks about how I have no nerves to play the top players, that I've lost a few close matches. But I have proved here at Wimbledon that I can do it. It is only today things didn't work out."
She said the difference was that once she had made the first mistake, the double fault that gave Graf a break and a glimmer of hope, the four-time champion from Germany simply built on it for the victory.
"It was not a horrible experience," Novotna said. "It was disappointing. But I had decided from the beginning that I was going to go for every point because that is how I played to get to the finals and I knew I could not win by playing defensive.
"But this time, when I went for it -- I was thinking aces on the second serve -- it didn't work and once Steffi lifted her game, she won it for herself."
Still, Graf was far from happy with this victory and made it clear it will not be held close to her heart like the other four.
"I thought I was out of it," said Graf. "She had two breaks and she had been playing wonderfully and I was not playing well at all. I thought I'd lost it. Then she gave me a few."
Graf was broken on her first serve yesterday, a sign of things to come. But she fought back to even the set and fought off a set point in the tiebreaker, before a backhand passing shot won her the set.
In the second set, Graf said she couldn't concentrate, "and everything I did was wrong.
"I really thought I was lost," she said. "My serve wasn't as strong as usual, and my whole game kind of was not up there."
Novotna could not or would not explain why what had been working for her stopped working. She said she got tired late in the third set, as the match stretched toward two hours, but again refused to acknowledge any crack in her armor.
"I don't think I gave Steffi this match," she said. "I simply did not make a few shots."
However, Graf said if the same thing happened to her, she would have been very disappointed "and have the feeling" that she choked.
"But that is not to say Jana gave the match to me," Graf said. "I don't think somebody gives you the match, because you've got to play until the end. You've got to play every point. She gave me some points and she missed a few easy forehands, but I still had to put the ball in play, and that's what I did."
The box score of No. 1 Steffi Graf's 7-6 (8-6), 1-6, 6-4 victory over No. 8 Jana Novotna for the women's singles championship yesterday at Wimbledon:
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Graf .. .. .. ..Novotna
Aces .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .6 .. .. .. .. .. ..3
Double faults .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .3 .. .. .. .. .. ..7
1st serve pct. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..70 .. .. .. .. .. .48