She didn’t choke. She didn’t crack.
She didn’t win, either, but she’s getting closer to beating Steffi Graf. And if Jana Novotna ever fulfills her great potential, perhaps she can look back to this semifinal loss at Wimbledon as a watershed.
“This was the way I wanted to play for a long, long time. It was one of the best matches I have played against Steffi since the 1993 Wimbledon final,” Novotna praised herself Thursday. “You could see when it was over that Steffi was really happy to get this one behind her.”
Graf won 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, struggling much of the way to find her first serve and knock the net-rushing Novotna off her pins. It took all her tactical ploys to win.
As close and tense as it was, the result was familiar. Graf has now beaten Novotna 24 of 27 times, and this one thrust her into position to win her sixth title here if she can get past Arantxa Sanchez Vicario on Saturday.
Sanchez Vicario, in a mild surprise, eliminated Conchita Martinez, the defending women’s champion, in a tedious match - 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1.
It was the first time Sanchez Vicario has reached a Wimbledon final, and it is her third grand slam final in 1995. She lost the Australian Open to Mary Pierce and the French Open to Graf.
After playing a self-described “perfect” set to beat Mary Joe Fernandez in the quarters, Graf was unable, predictably, to continue the momentum.
She missed a half-dozen sitters inside the service line in the first set while Novotna was whistling forehand ground strokes that produced either winners or setups for winners.
“I was really thinking, ‘I’m going to lose this,’ and I would have to wait another year,” Graf said after the first set. “I did think about that, I have to admit.”
But as the second set wore on, Graf got her game squared away and Novotna’s penetrating forehands got shorter and loopier. It was as if she had convinced herself she couldn’t hit that well two or three sets in a row.
Graf broke at love to win the second set and went on to score 10 consecutive points and gain a 2-0 lead in the third. In that second game, Novotna struck two doubles faults, one on a ball that hit the bottom of the net.
She seemed on the verge of one of those swoons, not unlike her tragic choke of the 1993 Wimbledon, where she led 4-1 in the third set and gave the match away to Graf.
This time, however, Novotna straightened out. Her forehand wasn’t working, but, using her slice backhand to pin Graf deep to the backcourt, she broke back and knotted the set at 2-2.
It was her last gasp. Graf held serve at 40-30 to go up 3-2, then broke Novotna again at 15-40 when Jana got caught handling a half-volley that hit a dead spot on the grass.
Leading 4-2, Graf suddenly found her first serve and cut off Novotna’s backhand-to-backhand rallies by coming in behind her returns and knocking off Novotna’s floaters at the net.
The women battled to deuce in the final game before Graf punished a short forehand for ad and won the match with a backhand return hit wide.
“To turn it around from a set down and right away go a break down in the second and not feel comfortable out there … obviously, I’m extremely happy right now,” Graf said.
“I was fighting out there. Really, I think she had to anticipate me in the third set. I hung in there and I came into the net when I had to.”
Novotna was ready for the inevitable questions about the 1993 choke and her similar date with disaster against Chanda Rubin at the French Open four weeks ago, when she blew a 5-0, 40-love lead in the third set.
“I was playing freely today, not nervous at all,” she said. “I was not remembering anything and I just said to myself, ‘You have nothing to lose. You have come from behind and you have come far enough in this tournament that if you play well enough, then you will win.”’
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: AT A GLANCE Women’s singles results: No. 1 Steffi Graf and No. 2 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario advanced to the final. Stat of the day: Losing semifinalist Jana Novotna had 20 break points, but could only break Steffi Graf’s serve six times. Today on Centre Court: Goran Ivanisevic vs. Pete Sampras; Andre Agassi vs. Boris Becker.