Novotna Wipes Away Wimbledon Sorrows

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This was for everyone who has lost the tennis match they should have won.

This was for two women who shaped her game and psyche, Hana Mandlikova and Betty Stove, two players who came within a match of winning Wimbledon.

This was for the Duchess of Kent, who supplied comfort and reassurance, predicting Jana Novotna would win Wimbledon on her third attempt in the final. And the royals are never wrong, right?

Most of all it was for Novotna, who desperately needed to lose the cumbersome burden of dramatic Wimbledon failures. It took the third-seeded Novotna a little more than an hour and a half to discard the past, defeating 16th-seeded Nathalie Tauziat of France, 6-4, 7-6 (7-2), in the women's final at Wimbledon on Saturday.

When the burden lifted--with Novotna hitting an emphatic forehand return winner down the line--she fell to her knees, sinking to the grass at Centre Court.

Novotna then stood, acknowledging the appreciative Centre Court gallery, thrusting her arms in the air. This time, the tears were of joy, not those of despair and misery when she lost the 1993 Wimbledon final to Steffi Graf after leading 4-1 in the third set.

The loss could have ruined a lesser player. But Novotna kept at it and gradually emerged with a positive attitude and climbed back, reaching another Wimbledon final in 1997 before losing to Martina Hingis in three sets.

In 1993, the Duchess of Kent provided a shoulder to cry on. Last year, she provided words of encouragement, saying the third time was "the third time lucky."

Saturday, Novotna dedicated the victory to her longtime coach, countrywoman and companion, Mandlikova, and climbed into the Friends' Box to share her joy with her mother, Liba, who had flown to London on Friday night from the Czech Republic, as well as Mandlikova and Stove.

"It means everything, really," Novotna said. "This is what I've been working for, for many years. This is a definite dream come true for me."

The moment was especially sweet for Novotna's mother. She had never seen her daughter play at any Grand Slam. Previously, Novotna worried about changing her routine. The third time was different.

"This time I said, 'It didn't work twice, Mom, come over,' " Novotna said. "I guess she brought me luck."

There was another heartwarming reunion, this one with the Duchess of Kent during the awards ceremony. They held hands and chatted, there were smiles instead of tears. As it turned out, the Duchess of Kent had unwavering confidence in Novotna's chances once she reached the final.

"She was very pleased I won this championship," Novotna said. "She was just so sure, she said, 'What was the big thing? I told you last year that, if you make it to the finals for a third time, it will be the third time lucky. And you will make it.'

"I told her she was absolutely right."

For the 29-year-old Novotna, this final had a different feeling. She was facing another veteran in the 30-year-old Tauziat, not a brash teenager or legendary champion. And this time, she was favored against Tauziat, who previously had never even reached a Grand Slam semifinal.

After Novotna worked her way through Venus Williams and top-seeded and defending champion Hingis in convincing fashion--she lost only one set in the tournament--it looked as though victory in the final was a foregone conclusion.

Novotna knew differently. She was 4-4 against Tauziat and the two had not played a match on grass.

"She [Tauziat] is very intelligent, experienced, and I knew this would be the toughest match of the whole championship," she said. "I felt like the match against Martina [Hingis] was a piece of cake compared to this one."

Her nerves showed immediately.

Trailing, 1-0, in the first set, Novotna double-faulted on the first point of her first service game and was broken. But Tauziat's serve was erratic too. Tauziat put in 54% of first serves, and won only 38% of the points on her second.

Tauziat, who was trying to become the first female French player to win Wimbledon since Suzanne Lenglen did in 1925, was not sharp. In addition to the shaky serve, she seemed a step slow.

"It's never easy to play your game when you are for the first time in the final of a big tournament like this," Tauziat said. "I have nothing to regret. She played better than me. She has more experience in the final of a Grand Slam and she deserved to win Wimbledon.

"I hope next year is going to be my Wimbledon."

Even with Tauziat not playing as well as she did in previous matches against second-ranked Lindsay Davenport and Natasha Zvereva, she still had an opening when Novotna got rattled serving for the match at 5-4.

That game was no clinic. Until Tauziat broke serve with a forehand volley, every point had come on an unforced error. The thought crept in: Would Novotna collapse again? It was almost as if the spectators were at a car race, waiting for another spectacular crash.

Novotna had some help in the tiebreaker from Tauziat, who became unnerved after hitting a forehand into the net on the sixth point. She plopped down on the grass and knocked her racket into the turf. That point gave Novotna a 4-2 lead in the tiebreaker, and she won the match three points later.

On match point, the most important shot of her career, Novotna needed a quick refresher course afterward from referee Alan Mills.

"I don't remember. I had to ask Alan Mills what I did on match point," she said, smiling. "I was just in a zone."

Now Novotna will be ranked No. 2 in the world, supplanting Davenport, when the latest rankings are released Monday. Tauziat will move to No. 10, which ties a previous career best.

Having reached the pinnacle, Novotna was reflective and funny.

"It's over. I'm quitting now," she said, joking. "A few things in my personal life happened to me which made me relax, and they made me realize tennis is not the most important thing in my life.

"But to win at Wimbledon, that's an incredible dream. But behind the dream is a lot of hard work. Not just last year or two years ago, a number of years. And I'm glad it finally paid off."

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Women's Money Breakdown

Prize money for Wimbledon:

* Singles winner: $649,890

* Runner-up: $324,945

* Semifinalists: $153,450

* Quarterfinalists: $79,796

* Round-of-16 losers: $41,700

* Round-of-32 losers: $22,659

* Round-of-64 losers: $13,712

* First-round losers: $8,400

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