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There was perfection and order at Wimbledon this year. For the first time since 1977 not a drop of rain fell during the fortnight, and the crowds enjoyed a seemingly endless reverie of sunbathing and stargazing. A numerical symmetry began to take shape when the top four men's seeds—Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier and Boris Becker—reached the semifinals, something that hadn't happened since 1927. On the Fourth of July, in the first all-American men's final since 1984, the No. 1 player in the world, Sampras, defeated the No. 2 player, Courier. The day before, the No. 1 women's player, Steffi Graf, won the 100th Wimbledon women's title.
Though many luminaries, including Barbra Streisand and Princess Diana, made cameo appearances at the All England Club, the leading role in the Wimbledon drama was played by the tournament's famed lawn, which gradually changed from a lush green dell to a dust bowl. Indeed, the ground became so dry that it cracked in places. Among those too delicate for the hard, sunbaked terrain were Andre Agassi, the defending champion, who despite the cheering of his pal Streisand was knocked out in the quarterfinals by Sampras, and Jana Novotna, the women's finalist who suffered one of the more memorable collapses ever witnessed on Centre Court.
In fact, the only moisture at Wimbledon this year fell shortly after the women's final, which Graf won 7-6, 1-6, 6-4 to gain her third straight Wimbledon championship and fifth overall. After taking a 4-1 lead in the third set, the eighth-seeded Novotna committed a series of mortifying errors, including four double faults in her last three service games. She maintained her composure when she shook hands with Graf, and when she accepted the runner-up plate from the duchess of Kent. But when the duchess consoled her by saying, "Jana, I believe you will do it," Novotna burst into tears and laid her head for a moment on the royal shoulder. "I said to myself, O.K., you lost and you have to handle it, it's an occasion," Novotna said later. "But I just lost it."
Graf, who was waiting to accept the winner's plate, also began to cry. Because her victory had come at such an emotional cost to her opponent, Graf's initial elation evaporated. "I was very happy in the first few moments after the match," she said, "but once I saw her face. I knew exactly what was going through her mind. We've all been in that situation. So I really felt bad."
Graf was so dissatisfied with the match that an hour later she made an unusual gesture. She sent Rennae Stubbs, a fellow player and good friend, to Martina Navratilova's rented house, which adjoined the grounds of the All England Club, to deliver a message: Graf wanted to meet Navratilova in a private match later that afternoon. However, only Navratilova's coach, Craig Kardon, was at home. Navratilova, still pained by her 6-4, 6-4 loss to Novotna in the semifinals, had gone to play golf rather than watch the final.
Many observers, including Graf, had assumed that the 36-year-old Navratilova, a nine-time champion and the second seed this year, would make it to the final. "I'm disappointed she's not there," Graf said before the championship match.
Indeed, Navratilova's chances of collecting her 10th title had seemed better than good on Thursday when she met Novotna, who had not beaten her in seven tries. But Navratilova suffered lapses that often plague older players: Her arms and legs simply didn't show up for the match. She seldom seemed to hit the ball cleanly, and her racket often emitted a muffled sound that mystified her. "I never felt the ball," she said. "I don't know what else I could have done." Navratilova, incidentally, also had a celebrity friend in attendance: Academy Award-winning actress Emma Thompson.
Navratilova denied that her loss to the 24-year-old Novotna was the result of age or that it pushed her closer to retirement. Although she has not won a Grand Slam title since Wimbledon in 1990, she has won nine other tournaments and is a solid No. 4 in the world rankings. After losing to Novotna, she left Centre Court with a finger raised, promising at least one more visit. "I'll be back," she said.
It is telling that Novotna was just 3-16 against Graf coming into the final, despite having extended her to three sets in five of their last six meetings. Still, Novotna refused to acknowledge that she had collapsed under the pressure, claiming that she had gone for her shots and simply missed. "It was just a sad ending," she said. "I believe more than ever I have potential to win a Grand Slam."
Before that sad ending the Czech-born Novotna put three winners of Grand Slam events on the run. In the quarterfinals she dispatched 1990 U.S. Open champion Gabriela Sabatini. Then Navratilova fell, and she had Graf dead to rights by playing some of the most graceful tennis Centre Court had ever seen. She alternately cut Graf to the quick with volleys or lured her to the net with deft chips and slices, and then lobbed over her or passed her.