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Splendor in the Grass

A fifth Wimbledon championship was sweet for Pete, but the force of the fortnight was Jana Novotna


By S.L. Price

Issue date: July 13, 1998

Sports Illustrated FlashbackThis time, she was the cool one. For five years she'd been the symbol of cracking under pressure, the thousand-word picture of self-destruction and loss, the easy answer to an impossible assignment. Sum up Wimbledon? Wimbledon is Jana Novotna blowing a huge lead in the 1993 final and shattering protocol by weeping on a duchess. But this year they all got into the act -- all the big guns who ever snickered or questioned her toughness or called her a choker. Steffi Graf cried after winning on Centre Court for the first time in two years, then gagged against Natasha Zvereva. No. 2 Lindsay Davenport sobbed after blowing her best-ever shot at the final. Venus Williams screamed and wept when a line judge crossed her and Novotna began to take her apart. They all crumbled. They all cried.

But not Novotna. Not this time. Not when she avenged her loss in last year's Wimbledon final by demolishing the bewildered No. 1 Martina Hingis in a straight-set semifinal, not when she polished off Nathalie Tauziat 6-4, 7-6 in a nerve-racking final to end 12 years of Grand Slam frustration. Not even when that same duchess of Kent took Novotna by both hands during the trophy presentation and said, "I'm so proud of you." There was just one moment, right after Novotna banged the winning forehand past Tauziat and sank to her knees, saying, "Yes, yes," with the crowd bellowing and her hands gathering over her trembling lips, when Novotna came so close. But there were no tears from her last Saturday. "There was no reason," Novotna, 29, said a day later. "It was absolute happiness and joy."

Joy? Who'd have thought Novotna could stir feelings like that? For decades Wimbledon has been the heartbreak Grand Slam, the castle where Ken Rosewall, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Hana Mandlikova, Monica Seles and 62 years' worth of British men have broken their lances and gone home empty. But no one failed as dramatically at the All England Tennis Club as Novotna did in squandering that third-set, 4-1 lead over Graf, and her pilgrimages since have been painful. Each year, on the day before the tournament began, Novotna would stroll to Centre Court with Mandlikova, her coach and companion of eight years, and speak to the cruel grass: Hello. It is nice to be back. Please be good to me.

And each year for four years, Novotna would play and lose her matches under this indelible cloud, with every newspaper praising her grass-court skill and replaying the Graf match, and every fan pitying her and wondering when she would choke. Last year she took the first set of the final against Hingis and lost, and even though Novotna had played then with a strained abdominal muscle and finished the year at No. 2, the clucking continued. She was supposed to lose. The more she was asked, the more she denied it. No, she told Mandlikova after the '93 final, I didn't choke. Yes, she told anyone who asked, she'd gotten over that loss right away. Until the instant she won on Saturday, she even believed it. "I just feel so relieved, so good," Novotna said. "Before I won, I really didn't feel any pressure, I felt good about what I had achieved. But now that I've finally done it, the weight is off. Even if I didn't know about it, there was a weight on my shoulders."

Now, Novotna said, she's ready to win more Slams. Wimbledon does that. For those who pay it deep homage, the dark-green confines have the power to recharge a career. Ask Pete Sampras. For months, the 26-year-old defending Wimbledon champion had been fending off ever-bolder questions about his motivation and skills. Having failed to win a major championship since taking last year's title, Sampras had ceded ground to a hungry field led by No. 2 Marcelo Rios and had come to London hearing that his peers no longer deemed him awesome. Richard Krajicek opened the discussion by saying Sampras was playing like the 10th-best player on the tour.

But once within the black iron gates, everything changed. Faced with a draw that offered no foe seeded higher than No. 12 Tim Henman, Sampras found his perfect tonic -- and he guzzled it. Never had Sampras, who prides himself on his inscrutable reserve, appeared so in need of a win. He dropped just one set en route to the final, and as he lifted his level of play, he also raised his intensity -- grunting on ground strokes, arguing calls, clenching his fists and screaming. In a four-set semifinal win over Henman, Sampras flung his racket into the crowd and stared Henman down after a leaping overhead. For most players that is typical behavior. For Sampras, it is dancing naked in Piccadilly Circus.

"I feel like I've come through every challenge in my career -- the rivalry with Andre, playing Boris Becker and Stich and Edberg and Courier and Chang. I didn't have a problem getting motivated to play those guys because we had a history," Sampras said. "Now it's a new crew, and I've had to get myself going again. But when it comes to Wimbledon, I don't care who I'm playing. This is what it's about."

Yet for all his renewed motivation, Sampras had never rolled into a Grand Slam event final more frightened. Part of that stemmed from the fact that there's no player -- including Krajicek, who beat Sampras en route to winning Wimbledon in 1996 -- whom Sampras fears more on grass than big-serving Croatian spaceman Goran Ivanisevic. No matter that Sampras carried a 10-2 record in Slam finals or that Ivanisevic had sunk to 25th in the rankings. Like a distant radio station abruptly coming in loud and clear, Ivanisevic's game appeared out of thin air at Wimbledon, as he beat Krajicek, Todd Martin, Jan Siemerink and Andrei Medvedev and crowed about Croatia's success in the World Cup. A win for both him and the team? "The whole country will be drunk for the rest of the year," Ivanisevic said. "Including me."

Twice a loser in Wimbledon finals, Ivanisevic came out firing. Drilling ace after ace and pounding Sampras's unusually shaky serve with his backhand, he took the first set, barely lost the second, then sagged. Sampras took control until, midway in the fourth, Ivanisevic again pumped up the volume, breaking him with four brilliant running passes. Sampras all but panicked. "In the fifth set, there were these thoughts: Oh, my god, if I lose, how am I going to feel? How am I going to get ready for the U.S. Open?" Sampras said. "I have an unbelievable fear of losing. That's what gets me going."

Then Ivanisevic stopped. Sampras, up 3-2, broke him easily in the sixth game, held and expected to serve out the match. Instead, Sampras broke him at love and, before he knew it, had won his fifth Wimbledon and 11th Grand Slam title 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.

Afterward, Sampras sat at courtside, his face in his towel, and when he looked up, it hit him that he was now standing in history next to Borg and Laver, men he had worshiped as a kid. Nothing seemed right. He still felt bad for his opponent, still wanted to serve it out. In his press conference, Sampras kept getting asked about history, about being one Grand Slam win away from tying Roy Emerson's men's record of 12. The questions made him squirm.

"I felt melancholy about everything," Sampras said later. "I felt overwhelmed: I've won this thing five times. I never thought Borg's record would be broken. I'd hear: Borg's five Wimbledons, and it was just huge to me. You never think of yourself doing it. As a kid, I was told I was great, but I never planned on this. It just happened.

"I don't want to talk about me; I just want the respect. I don't need to walk into a restaurant saying, 'Oh, I'm the greatest tennis player ever.' It's ironic, but I'm uncomfortable with what I do, in a way, and with what I achieve."

Sampras has always known that winning majors is about more than attacking an open court with clever angles. It's about how a player fills the other spaces in the game -- the rain delays, the time at lesser tournaments, the emptiness after a loss. Novotna learned this the hard way, but the collapse against Graf and a series of personal trials (last year, two days before Wimbledon, her father, Frank, had his foot mangled in a gardening accident that cost him a toe and months of rehabilitation) pushed her to lighten up. Once convinced that getting to No. 1 required an all-consuming intensity, Novotna went to "just being happy on the court," said Davenport, a former doubles partner. "If we were losing, I was always like, 'This is terrible,'" Davenport says. "And she was like, 'Look on the bright side. We're still in the match.' She really did change."

It's a good lesson for tennis's latest prodigies. In her quarterfinal with Novotna, Venus Williams stood one service point from going up 5-2 in the first set before squandering the chance in a flurry of blown forehands and petulant complaints. She lost in straight sets. Against Novotna, Hingis raced to a 3-0 lead before flinging her racket into the net and losing their semifinal 6-4, 6-4. Since winning the Australian Open, Hingis has lost in the semis of two Slams, and she looks vulnerable. "To maintain her level at Number 1, she needs to make another step up -- improve herself or come in more or something," Novotna said. "She has to do that. Because we will be all over her."

The most dispiriting display last week may have been put on by 16-year-old Serena Williams, who showed great ease on the grass before retiring with an injury from a third-round match against Virginia Ruano-Pascual while trailing 7-5, 4-1. Williams had fallen in the match and called for a trainer, but -- never showing any sign of a limp -- she served out and won her last game and played mixed doubles the next day. In fact, she and her partner, Max Mirnyi, went on to win the mixed doubles title. For any player this was a poor showing. For half of a duo who regularly claim they will be battling it out for No. 1, it was particularly weak.

"The Williams sisters, they don't know what it takes now to be Number 1 or win a Grand Slam," said Mandlikova, a four-time Grand Slam winner. "Maybe in three years they will know, and they'll look back and say, Wow, I was stupid when I said, 'This time I'm going to win Wimbledon.' They don't know how hard it is. They're young. They're arrogant. It's a respect they don't have, and it's not good."

Who would know better? Since 1993, Mandlikova has been watching Novotna "grow stronger and stronger and stronger," taking that loss to Graf and building on it, never giving in to what the world thought of her. "It comes down to this: You have to depend on yourself, you have to know who you are, how good you are," Novotna said. "I don't let those things bother me anymore."

Instead, Novotna pressed on, saving the match of her life for this Wimbledon, for Hingis. When the time came, Novotna played flawlessly in their semifinal, stinging Hingis with touch volleys, unwieldy ground strokes and a plan that never let Hingis breathe. When the cheering began to die, she walked to the net and told Hingis she'd paid her back for last year's final. Later, Novotna was told that Hingis had said something nice. "For the first time, I heard it from a Number 1 player: 'Jana is a great champion,'" Novotna said. Her face went pink in the retelling.

But before all that, there was one other order of business. It came just after Hingis slapped the final point into the net. Novotna turned to her box, where she saw Mandlikova, who lost in two Wimbledon finals because she "wanted it too much," and Betty Stove, who lost her one final here. Novotna knelt on one knee and laid her right hand flat on the court. She was going to the final, and this time she was going to win it. Novotna bowed her head. Thank you, she said to the kind grass. Thank you for being good to me.

Issue date: July 13, 1998


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