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.