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Even Indoors, Rain Ruins Stich’s Match : Australian Open: When roof is closed because of wet weather, Novacek takes advantage of conditions.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the caprice of weather and shifting winds, the Australian Open can be transformed from a Grand Slam event played on windy outdoor hardcourts to an indoor event played inside a sauna.

The winds of change came today and seventh-seeded Michael Stich, for one, was not pleased. His loss to Karel Novacek in the third round reversed the outcome of their meeting at the U.S. Open semifinal, but Stich was more miffed with the reversal of venue: Because of morning rain here, the retractable roof over center court was closed.

“The conditions change, I would say 100%,” Stich said. “It is a totally different ballgame when you play indoors. I think it’s a totally different tennis match. I think for him it was an advantage to play indoors, but that’s the way the Australian Open is played.”

Novacek, ranked No. 28 in the world, managed to adapt to the conditions well. His newly designed serve-and-volley game overwhelmed Stich, ranked No. 9. Novacek won in 1 hour 39 minutes, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4.

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In the second match on center court, second-seeded Conchita Martinez defeated Kristie Boogert, 6-3, 2-6, 6-3.

In a late match, No. 1 Pete Sampras defeated Lars Jonsson, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.

Matches on the outside courts were delayed three hours. And, while the rain stopped falling in earnest by midafternoon, the sky never cleared and a mist enveloped the sprawling grounds of the National Tennis Center.

Not so inside the cavernous 15,000-seat center court. Once the massive steel roof is snapped shut, the air grows heavy and still. According to known preferences, the conditions should have favored Stich. Novacek thought so.

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“That’s what I was afraid of a little bit, because Michael is very comfortable indoors and the speed of the ball is going to be different,” Novacek said.

What was glaringly different in the match were Novacek’s tactics. He lost to Stich, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), at the U.S. Open last September and was overwhelmed by Stich’s powerful serve-and-volley game that effectively pinned him on the baseline.

This time, Stich had only one ace and Novacek, from the Czech Republic, never lost his own serve.

“Normally, Karel is a guy who can play really well but always has two or three games where he just misses a lot of balls and makes a lot of unforced errors,” Stich said. “Today he played really well serve and volley. . . . I think he played perfect tennis today, and that’s why he won and that’s why he deserves to go to the next round.”

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Novacek, 29, said Stich’s error was in not adjusting to both the conditions and tactics presented during the match.

“I don’t want to say like he’s not trying,” Novacek said. “But he didn’t try to find any other kind of way or different tennis to play when his best is not working.”

Stich kept returning to the issue of the roof. On rainy days the only matches to be played as scheduled are those on center court. Players on other courts either wait or have their matches rescheduled. The system, said Stich, is unfair.

“I think if 64 guys are waiting, I think everyone should wait, and not eight players should go on and play,” Stich said. “What’s going to happen if you have rain for two days and you just get four matches done and the other guys have to play three days in a row? It’s just not the way I think it should be. That’s why we call this outdoor tennis and that’s why it should be outdoor tennis.”

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