TENNIS / FRENCH OPEN : Novotna Again Turns Victory Into Defeat
Time to go, Lindsay Davenport thought.
Fifth-seeded Jana Novotna was leading Chanda Rubin, 5-0, 40-love, in their final set at the French Open on Saturday, and Davenport’s third-round match was next on Center Court. She left the players’ lounge and began the long, circuitous walk to the court.
Davenport hurried along, expecting to be called to the court at any minute. In the hallway, she ran into her friend, Mary Joe Fernandez. Slow down, Fernandez said, they aren’t yet finished.
Must be a rain delay, Davenport thought.
By the time she made her way back to the locker room, it was apparent that it hadn’t rained at all. Rubin had come back to 5-3 and was still going. Suddenly, Davenport knew she was seeing another of Novotna’s improbable collapses.
“I was standing outside watching and I was just freaking out,” Davenport said. “I was going in the locker room and coming back, going in the locker room and coming back. I finally watched the last game upstairs. All the [players] were going nuts. There must have been 25 girls upstairs screaming.”
It was a natural reaction to an agonizing match. Novotna failed to capitalize on nine match points against Rubin, who is ranked No. 53. Novotna had 22 break points and converted only nine. By any statistical measure, Novotna had the match all but won, but didn’t win it. After 2 hours 50 minutes, Rubin, from Lafayette, La., scored the biggest comeback thus far in the French Open, winning, 7-6 (10-8), 4-6, 8-6.
When Davenport finally got on the court, the No. 7-seeded player dispatched 14-year-old Martina Hingis of Switzerland, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, in a match that pitted Davenport’s power against Hingis’ precision. After a shaky first set, power prevailed.
Novotna, meanwhile, did nothing Saturday to make anyone forget her fabled collapse in the Wimbledon final of 1993. Then, Novotna had a 4-1 lead in the third set and was a point away from 5-1. Poised on the brink of winning her first Grand Slam title, she double-faulted and eventually lost the match and title to Steffi Graf.
English fans, in particular, will long remember Novotna’s breach of etiquette after the match when she sobbed into the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent.
There was no accommodating shoulder here and little solace for Novotna, who steeled herself for the inevitable allusions to Wimbledon. She understandably bristles when someone mentions her reputation as a player who fails to hold leads.
“I had match point and I lost it,” she said, at times lashing out at reporters during a news conference. “But don’t forget that this happens to everybody. If I would come back from match point, that would be a different story. But it is always easier to criticize and say, ‘You had this, you had that.’ I wonder how many times you remind Gabriela Sabatini when she is sitting here. How many times has it happened to her?”
Rubin’s persistence brought about Novotna’s downfall. There is nothing remarkable about Rubin’s game, but she has mastered that tennis cliche of playing one point at a time. Many players would have collapsed under the weight of Novotna’s lead.
“I was pretty calm, because I was down,” Rubin said. “I was a point from losing the match several times. I wasn’t really thinking of coming back. I was just thinking about one point at a time. I was so far down, I just basically wanted to win one game and a set. I just tried to build one point, one point.”
The points began to pile up, eventually burying Novotna.
Davenport was asked whether the Novotna-Rubin match should be characterized as a comeback or a collapse.
“I definitely think it was a collapse,” she said with refreshing honesty. “I think it was a bit of a choke.”
Davenport’s match had none of the drama of the one that preceded it. Starting stiffly on a cold, gray afternoon, Davenport lost the first set. Hingis still lacks physical maturity and the strength that comes with it, but her ground strokes are consistent and she can put the ball wherever she wants.
Her weakness, well chronicled, is her serve. Davenport at first failed to capitalize on Hingis’ vulnerable second serve but corrected that in the second and third sets.
“I was able to overpower her and especially take advantage of her serve,” Davenport said. “She hit some great shots. She was taking my ball very early, and not many people do that.”
Hingis, who is ranked No. 23 but will break into the top 20 this week, is the women’s tour’s next big star. Davenport will turn 19 this week and used to be considered the kid.
“It’s not often that I play someone younger than me,” Davenport said. “When I was 14, I was playing 16-and-under nationals and being a freshman or eighth-grader--definitely not playing Center Court at Roland Garros. I think that is a lot to deal with. She seems to be pretty well adjusted and happy, so far.”
Hingis’ future is uncertain. Tennis can be cruel. Like matches, fortunes can turn. Ask Jana Novotna.
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