If Jana Novotna accomplished nothing else during this Wimbledon, she at least helped introduce the element of doubt.
Steffi Graf had looked unbeatable through her first five matches, but Novotna, with her serve-and-volley game and strong passing shots, pushed Graf to the limit and became the first person to take a set from Graf before losing 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 in the semifinals Thursday.
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and her opponent in the other semifinal, Conchita Martinez, are the only other players to take a set from Graf this year. But Sanchez Vicario will need more than the memory of that one victory when she faces Graf today, who even with her bad back is the class of the women’s field. On the one hand, it could be helpful to know that Graf entertained thoughts about the possibility of losing after Novotna took the first set. On the other, it’s almost frightening to think that one slip inspired Graf to play even better. Nevertheless, Graf didn’t come away with much confidence, even though Novotna is a much better grass-court player.
“It’s going to be such a different match from what was going on (Thursday),” Graf said. “But there’s one thing: I’m not going to underestimate her at all. She’s been coming through to the finals impressively. She played well again (Thursday). One thing I’m not going to do is feel I’m the absolute favorite. I don’t feel like that at all right now.”
Sanchez Vicario is the No. 2 seed and No. 2-ranked player in the world and even a victory would not give her enough points to overtake Graf atop the rankings. By now, she should be used to playing the role of bridesmaid. She was the runner-up in the French Open and the runner-up in the Australian Open this year. Like her playing style, which always seems to keep her around the ball, Sanchez Vicario has a knack of sticking around Grand Slam tournaments until the end. Last year she won the U.S. Open and the French Open and was a finalist at the Australian Open. In fact, she has advanced to the semifinals or farther in every Australian, U.S. and French Open since 1992. Wimbledon has been the missing link in that series of Grand Slam successes. Her lack of power and reluctance to play the serve-and-volley game that works so well on grass kept her from advancing past the quarterfinals in the past.
“I think my attitude is different,” Sanchez Vicario said. “I’m having much more fun on the court, playing (on) grass. I decided to be aggressive and I’m the No. 1 player in the world in doubles, so I believe I can go to the net and do well there. So that’s what I’ve been doing so far and doing all the tournament.”
These two are used to meeting at the highest level. Sanchez Vicario beat Graf in the French Open final in 1989 and in the U.S. Open final last year. Graf won the 1994 Australian Open and the French Open this year.