It's service with a smile Tennis: Wimbledon titlist Jana Novotna plans to show her sunny side when she meets nemesis Steffi Graf here in Pam Shriver's event.

November 23, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

The first time a 14-year-old Jana Novotna traveled to the European tennis championships, she looked at the list of women's competitors and the only name she recognized was that of Steffi Graf.

Then she looked at the draw. Novotna vs. Graf -- the beginning of a long, frustrating relationship.

"From the beginning, it was always Steffi who seemed to be the one who stopped me," Novotna says. "She was my first-round opponent in my first traveling tournament, and, of course, she beat me -- in three sets."

Last Tuesday, Novotna and Graf met in the first round of the Chase Championships, and Graf won, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4, 6-1, for the 28th time in their 32 meetings.

Tomorrow, at the Baltimore Arena, Novotna and Graf will face off again, this time in Pam Shriver's Chevy Chase Bank Tennis Challenge, a tournament benefiting local charities.

"Playing Steffi in an exhibition is very difficult," Novotna said. "I want to go out and have fun, give the fans a show they usually don't see. But Steffi is always so serious. She plays every match -- a real match or an exhibition -- the same. Maybe I should talk to her before we go out there. I think people would like to see the other, less serious side of her."

For years, when most sports fans thought of Novotna, the image that came to mind was of her blowing an enormous lead and weeping on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent after the 1993 Wimbledon final.

The tears had come because she had been up 4-1 in the third set and serving at 40-30 against Graf when she double-faulted and went on to lose, 7-6, 1-6, 6-4.

It wasn't until last July that Novotna, then 29, won Wimbledon for the first time. In the process, she became the first woman on the pro tour to win her first Grand Slam tournament past the age of 20. And the winning also created a new image.

It was one of a smiling, laughing Novotna gently holding the winner's large gold plate as if it meant the world to her.

"It was a wonderful moment," Novotna said, as she sat relaxed in her favorite-colored red sweat suit. "It's funny how things happen. Steffi has stopped me from winning more Grand Slams that I might have won in my career.

"And then, when I did win, she wasn't there -- at the Chase Championships last year, she was out injured, and at Wimbledon this year, she lost in the first round and I won the title. It's really ironic."

The absence of Graf did not diminish the victory. Novotna overcame then-No. 1 Martina Hingis on her way to the trophy and won in a year when teen-agers were being ballyhooed -- Hingis had won the Australian Open, and Anna Kournikova, Venus Williams and Serena Williams made noise all year.

It seemed Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario's victory at the French Open was an abnormality. But by the time autumn came, veterans were making their own ruckus.

Novotna took Wimbledon. Lindsay Davenport, 22, won the U.S. Open and captured the No. 1 ranking, and Novotna's nemesis, Graf, also 29, came back from hand surgery to win back-to-back tournaments and make it to the semifinals at the Chase.

Before the past three weeks, this had been a difficult 17 months for Graf. First came an eight-month layoff due to surgery on her left knee, then a strained hamstring, followed by an injured right ankle and then her most recent problem, a wrist injury that required surgery.

During her Chase semifinal loss Saturday, Graf suffered a

hamstring strain, but it apparently wasn't serious.

For more than a year, it has been Graf vs. herself, rather than Graf vs. a tennis opponent. And it has been a frustrating time for the woman who has spent eight of the past 11 years ranked No. 1.

"My problem has been staying healthy long enough to get in a lot of matches," she said.

"I rushed back from the [wrist] surgery to play at Leipzig [the first of her recent string of victories]. It was gutsy but [I] love what I do."

Since June 15, Graf's ranking has risen from 91st to 12th. In the past two weeks, she has become the only woman in tennis history to beat the top three players in the world in a span of four matches, knocking off Davenport, Hingis and Novotna.

Graf may, indeed, be back, but in her absence, Novotna said she has taken advantage of the situation, not only in terms of wins, but also in becoming better understood by the public. She says those 1993 Wimbledon tears and her own serious demeanor on court created a false impression.

"On court, I'm doing my job 100 percent of the time," Novotna said. "I'm very serious. But off the court, I'm very funny. I can make people laugh. I know so many jokes, you wouldn't believe it.

"But when people first saw me after this Wimbledon, they said, 'Oh, my God, what a changed person Jana is.' But it wasn't that I had changed, it was that people hadn't had the opportunity before to notice what I was really like. What could I do? I can't walk up to people and say, 'Hi, I'm Jana. I'm very funny and very friendly and you have something to look forward to.' "

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