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TENNIS / WOMEN AT MANHATTAN BEACH : Novotna Still Overshadowed by Collapse

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The painful Centre Court scene at Wimbledon in 1993 will forever link Jana Novotna with the ghosts of the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

In one of the greatest collapses of women’s tennis, Novotna lost the final to Steffi Graf, 7-6 (8-6), 1-6, 6-4, after leading, 4-1, in the third set. Then, during an emotional trophy presentation, Novotna buried her head on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder and sobbed.

“She said, ‘Jana, I know that you will do it someday, don’t worry,’ ” Novotna said at the time. “I just, you know, I just let go.”

As she enters the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles, which will be held today through Sunday at the Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach, Novotna, ranked eighth, cannot escape the images of that Wimbledon final.

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Before then, she was known for doubles, even though she reached the Australian Open singles final in 1991. She and former partner Helena Sukova were regarded as the world’s best doubles team in 1989 and ’90 before they split. She and partner Larisa Neiland finished 1993 ranked fourth.

Although a perennial top-10 singles player, the Czech-born Novotna never really had a major breakthrough until last year’s Wimbledon.

“Even if you play well in a regular tournament or do well in doubles, it’s never the same as if you do well at a Grand Slam,” she said. "(Wimbledon) is a special time for me, and I showed everybody I was a very good player. I showed I was very emotional.”

Some suggest she also showed a lack of mental toughness. Her breakthrough is best known as a breakdown.

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She insists she did not choke.

“Only the ending was sad,” she has said.

It might take a Grand Slam tournament title to erase that ending. In the meantime, Novotna and her coach, Hana Mandlikova, are striving for a few more chances.

Novotna hopes to polish her game at the weeklong L.A. tournament before the year’s final Grand Slam event, the U.S. Open, later this month.

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After a first-round bye, Novotna will face the winner of the match between Karine Quentrec of France and Karin Kschwendt of Germany in the second round at Manhattan Beach.

A strong serve-and-volley player, Novotna, 25, still is looking for Grand Slam consistency. She reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and the Australian Open this year, but was upset in the first round of the French Open.

If there was ever a time to make a move in women’s tennis, this is it. With top-ranked Graf struggling, No. 2 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and No. 3 Conchita Martinez vulnerable on hard courts and No. 4 Martina Navratilova retiring, there is an opening.

The opening is wide, considering the temporary retirements of former No. 1 Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati and the continued slide of Gabriela Sabatini.

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“Steffi is the only one dominant and very good on all surfaces,” Novotna said. “All the pressure is always on Steffi.”

Women’s tennis once seemed to have three or four dominant players. If one lost, the others had a chance to win.

“But now if Steffi loses, everybody has a good chance,” Novotna said.

Is she listening to herself?

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