Novotna topples No. 1 Hingis In 3rd Wimbledon final, No. 3 seed faces Tauziat in search of elusive title


July 03, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England -- It's hard to be 17 and a champion, when every flaw is dissected, when every racket toss is noted, when every loss is the stuff of tennis history.

But for Martina Hingis, the toughest part of being a year older and trying to defend the coveted Wimbledon title was the realization that she was no longer dominant, no longer unbeatable.

"I guess I'm not the player I was last year," Hingis said yesterday after being dispatched from Wimbledon's women's semifinals by her doubles partner, Jana Novotna.

No. 3 seed Novotna beat No. 1 Hingis, 6-4, 6-4, in a thrilling Centre Court masterpiece that set up what has to be one of the most unpredictable women's finals in Wimbledon history.

Tomorrow, it will be Novotna, 29, the two-time finalist and sentimental favorite, against Nathalie Tauziat, 30, who ousted Natasha Zvereva, 1-6, 7-6 (7-1), 6-3.

In an age that is supposed to be dominated by the tennis teens, the veterans showed just who can be the toughest in the big events.

And the Centre Court crowd showed its heart -- and gave its cheers -- to Novotna.

When Novotna beat Hingis under a steel-gray sky, the roars rained down from the stands, as fans with a sense of tennis history and tradition saluted a favored player. And they rejoiced in Novotna's comeback from adversity. Twice, she had been to Wimbledon finals -- against Steffi Graf in 1993 and Hingis last year -- and twice she had lost in the most heartbreaking ways.

Novotna has wept in defeat and accepted runner-up prizes from the Duchess of Kent. She is hoping for a different finish tomorrow.

"Let's just hope what the Duchess of Kent said last year is right," Novotna said. "She said, 'Third time lucky.' So, here I am."

But it sure took a lot for Novotna to get back to the final. She had to get past Hingis.

Hingis may have lost against Monica Seles in the semifinals at the French Open, her second serve may be her weakness and her temper may be unchecked at times, but she remains the best baseline attacker in the game.

And at the start of this match, Hingis looked like a pool shark ready to run the table. She won the first nine points and swept the first three games. And then, just like that, the magic was gone. Here was Novotna charging the net, cutting off all the lanes, and there was Hingis, flustered, giving away the set.

"I'm playing great and I almost can't lose this set anymore, and all of a sudden, it was like 6-4 for her, and I was like, 'Hey, come on, pick it up again.' "

But in the second set, it was Novotna who lifted her game and ran off with the match.

She pushed the kid's serve in the seventh game, a 16-point gem filled with swaying emotions and brilliant shots. Hingis had to slam two aces to hold on, and even flexed her muscles and struck a bodybuilder's pose. She held on for a 4-3 lead, but the damage was done.

Novotna kept coming forward, and got the key break in the ninth game, when she reached high for a backhand overhead and slashed the ball cross-court to move ahead 5-4.

And in the last game, with the crowd edged forward and with Novotna's penchant for collapse hanging in the air, the veteran remained calm, cut off the kid's lobs with ballet-like overheads and served Hingis right out of Wimbledon.

Afterward, Hingis reflected on a tough tournament and a tough year.

"I always said it was going to be much more difficult this year to accomplish the same things as I did last year," she said. "The younger players, they have gotten better. And the older players are back again."

Novotna never went away. She has been relentless in pursuit of the Wimbledon title.

Was the win over Hingis her best victory?

"Well, you cannot say that because the job for me is not finished yet," she said.

Now, Novotna has to get past Tauziat, the No. 16 seed.

The Zvereva-Tauziat match was weird and wonderful. Here were two veterans reaching for one last bit of tennis glory. Zvereva, 26, reached one Grand Slam final a decade ago, and hasn't done much since in singles. Tauziat had never been in a Grand Slam final.

They played old-style, almost slow-motion grass-court tennis, and Tauziat was unnerved in the first set.

"I was embarrassed," she said. "I don't think at the beginning of the match that I gave my best. When you play a Grand Slam and you have a chance to be in the final and, suddenly, I started to think, 'I'm going to miss this chance,' and I said, 'Nathalie, you have to fight.' "

And she fought well. She matched Zvereva chip for chip, won the second-set tiebreaker, went up a service break in the last set and claimed the spot in the final. As the match ended, Tauziat fell into the dirt and screamed.

"I don't know what I'm going to do if I win the final," she said. "But I was so happy to win and be in the final of a Grand Slam."

Even in defeat, Zvereva said she wasn't disappointed. She had a remarkable Wimbledon. She beat Graf. She beat Seles. And she nearly launched herself into the final.

"I'm so tired," Zvereva said. "I need a mental institution break."

But Wimbledon rolls on. Novotna vs. Tauziat for the women's title.

7+ Now, who could have predicted that one?

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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