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Novotna Succeeds at Seles' Expense

French Open: Refusing to do her familiar collapse, she beats the co-No. 1-seeded player, 7-6 (9-7), 6-3.

June 05, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — The emotional tables got turned on Monica Seles and Jana Novotna, a reversal that produced a stunning result Tuesday during the quarterfinals of the French Open and showed the tennis world what might be possible when Novotna has mind and body in harmony.

Seles, normally fearless and a risk taker, was timid and circumspect. Novotna, whose talent is obvious but whose ability to exploit it is not, was daring and confident. Seles, who has nothing in her history to suggest she would ever choke during a match, visibly tightened, while Novotna, whose name is synonymous with blowing leads, was steadfast.

Novotna, seeded 11th, defeated Seles, co-seeded No. 1, 7-6 (9-7), 6-3, and will play Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the semifinals on Thursday. Sanchez Vicario defeated Karina Habsudova, 6-2, 6-7 (7-4), 10-8. Steffi Graf defeated Iva Majoli, 6-3, 6-1, and will play Conchita Martinez in the other semifinal. Martinez defeated Lindsay Davenport, 6-1, 6-3.

Seles' loss ends a string of 25 consecutive victories at Roland Garros and dashes hope she had of winning the French Open for the fourth time. Seles first played here in 1989 as a 16-year-old and was best remembered for throwing flowers to the fans. The next year the roles were reversed--Seles won the first of her three consecutive titles.

Novotna has never won a Grand Slam title and has spent much of her career justifying that failing. Her command and touch during Tuesday's match testified to what might be possible should she ever gain control over her tempestuous emotions.

Seles was not herself either. Under a blazing sun, Seles' famous strength of mind wilted.

"There are not too many excuses," Seles said. "She was just simply better than I was today. She played a better game and deserved to win, clearly.

"I just played very scared. That shouldn't have been the way I should have gone out today on the court. I didn't take any chances, and I played really defensive, which is not my style of game. If I'm on the tennis court, I should not play that way."

Novotna dictated nearly every point. Seles committed 29 unforced errors and served dismally, although she said she was not bothered by a long-standing shoulder injury.

"I felt she was serving bad," Novotna said. "A couple of games she served normally and had some easy games, but she was serving really, really bad. Even the first serve was weak. I was very aggressive on that, and that was the key point."

Seles still looks rusty, having played six tournaments since returning to the tour in Toronto last August following a 2-year hiatus after being stabbed at a tournament in Germany. She won the tournament, and the level of her play there remains the best she has put together over an entire tournament. But even there Seles talked of her "struggle against doubt"

Seles has pushed her body hard to come back. Her various aches and pains were exacerbated by an ambitious schedule that called for her to play six weeks in a row, beginning with the Australian Open. Seles won the tournament but incurred an injury to the lining in the socket of her left shoulder that kept her off the tour for nearly four months.

A clay-court tournament in Madrid two weeks ago was her first match in four months, and Seles' first on clay in more than three years. She pulled out of the tournament because of her shoulder, but it was a difficult week for other reasons.

Seles was walking onto the court for her first match in Madrid and she was greeted by a television crew. The host of a Spanish tabloid show rushed forward, wielding a huge knife made of spongy material, shouting, "Take it Monica, it's for you!"

Seles has not been spared such tasteless reminders of a traumatic event.

Novotna, too, has been confronted with an unpleasant past. Each prominent failure stays with her and is revisited every time she loses a lead.

Two recent examples were her collapse against Graf in the 1994 Wimbledon final. Novotna held a 4-1 lead in the third set and was one point from 5-1 when she double-faulted and went on to lose.

Last year's crumble was equally bleak. Novotna held a 5-0, 40-0 lead over Chanda Rubin in the third round here last year. Novotna had 22 break points and converted only nine and squandered nine match points. After her loss, Novotna lashed out at reporters for constant questions about her inability to hold a lead.

There was no defensiveness after Tuesday's match, nor any need.

"Today, I didn't feel that I could lose the match," Novotna said. "Even before the match, I felt really confident. I felt as soon as we started to play, 'I'm going to win today.' '

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