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Novotna's 6-4, 6-4 victory over defending champion Martina

By Steve WilsteinAssociated Press Published: July 3, 1998 12:00 AM

Novotna's 6-4, 6-4 victory over defending champion Martina Hingis in the semifinals Thursday gave her a chance to fulfill the duchess' words Saturday against Nathalie Tauziat, a 1-6, 7-6 (7-1), 6-3 winner over Natasha Zvereva.

"Let's just hope what the Duchess of Kent said last year is right," said Novotna, who sobbed on the duchess' shoulder after surrendering a huge lead against Steffi Graf in the 1993 final.

Three times near the end of this riveting semifinal, Novotna soared to spear lobs with backhand smashes _ the toughest shots in tennis _ and each time Hingis cringed.

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The last of those leaps set up triple match point, and after a nervous balk of a toss into the shivery breeze, Novotna closed out the victory with a serve that the Hingis dumped feebly into the net.

Novotna dropped to one knee, patted the turf _ as though she needed to make sure it was real _ then ran over to kiss Hingis on both cheeks.

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"You beat me last year, and I gave it to you back now," Novotna said.

"Yes, you did," Hingis replied with a smile to her doubles partner and fellow Czech native.

Asked moments later how it felt to lose her title, Hingis winced and replied sarcastically, "Great."

But she quickly changed her expression and flashed a pained grin.

"Put on a smiley face, you know," she said.

If ever a Wimbledon crowd embraced a player, coaxing her game by game with the warmest cheers and applause, it was Novotna.

"It was absolutely stunning," Novotna said of the fans calling her name.

They had witnessed her unhappy history on Centre Court and wanted to share in her triumph. Many of the same fans sat in the same seats for the 1993 finals. They saw Novotna waste a lead again in the final last year against Hingis.

When she plays Tauziat, there is no doubt the crowd will be pulling for Novotna.

Tauziat, the lowest seeded finalist in history at No. 16, is seeking to become the first Frenchwoman to win Wimbledon since Suzanne Lenglen in 1925.

"I'm not on the moon already, but almost," said Tauziat, who talked herself past an embarrassing first set, settled down to beat Zvereva with a solid all-court, and now is emerging from the shadows for the first time in an undistinguished 15-year career.

At a time when women's tennis has so many young stars like Hingis, a 17-year-old with four Grand Slam titles already, and Venus and Serena Williams, the pairing of Novotna and Tauziat in the final is another sign that the old guard is not finished.

A month ago, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario captured the French Open against Monica Seles. Now the match between the 30-year-old Tauziat and the 29-year-old Novotna will be the oldest in a Wimbledon final since 1977, when 31-year-old Virginia Wade beat 32-year-old Betty Stove.

"I said to myself, 'I may be old, but I'm still all over the court,"' Novotna said. "Martina came there with some incredible lobs, topspin lobs over my backhand, and the way I handled that was just wonderful.

"Really, it doesn't matter how old you are, or what it says on the paper. The most important is how you feel. I know that I have been working really hard and playing some consistent tennis. I mean, you don't see this happening too often, getting back-to-back finals."

Novotna fashioned this victory over Hingis with exquisite grasscourt play, chipping and charging at every opportunity, mixing up baseline rallies with serve-and-volley tactics. She overcame an 0-3 start in the first set to break Hingis three times, punishing the teen's weak second serve, and broke her again to start the second set.

"After last year, I would never think that she's going to come back again and have this great Grand Slam here at Wimbledon," said Hingis, who won in three sets a year ago. "But she's a great player on grass.

"She puts a lot of pressure on you because she closes up at the net very well, and you have to go for your shots. I hit some great shots which, against other players, would have been the point. She always got it somehow with the slice, and you have to come back again and again and again. Today I just wasn't patient enough."

Unlike her losses in the Wimbledon finals to Graf and Hingis, Novotna never tightened up this time when she grabbed a lead. Rather, she played with a confidence and fluidity that looked effortless.

She was at her athletic best in lunges for drop shots or leaps for lobs, strokes that Hingis has used so effectively against everyone else at Wimbledon. In the last few games, Novotna put on a show that utterly frustrated Hingis.

At 3-3, Hingis was struggling to hold after three break points. On the fourth deuce, Hingis lofted a lob she thought was good, but Novotna flung herself upward and back and caught the ball with a backhand smash that Hingis couldn't handle. Hingis flung her racket into the net in disgust. She managed to hold with the help of a service winner, and two games later, serving at 30-40, Hingis tried another lob.

Once more Novotna spun, leaped and drilled another backhand smash for a winner that gave her the crucial break and a 5-4 lead. Hingis doubled over, then went slowly to the sideline as if she knew the match would soon be finished.

And so it was. Novotna got to 40-love with one last backhand smash off a lob, and sent it crosscourt. Hingis tried to scoop it up, but could only flick it into the net.

Novotna didn't waste the opportunity, though one nervous moment remained. She tossed up the ball for her final serve, but caught it instead of hitting it. Maybe it was the breeze, maybe her excitement as she stood on the brink of victory.

But she smiled, and the crowd chuckled with her, and the tension was broken. Novotna tossed the ball up again and delivered a serve that Hingis couldn't return.

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