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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Seles' Body English Tells the Story

Tennis: Shoulder injury is evident in 7-5, 3-6, 8-6 loss to Novotna. Americans Fernandez, Davenport advance to semifinals.

July 30, 1996|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

ATLANTA — One way to look at Monica Seles' loss to Jana Novotna in Monday's quarterfinals of the Olympic tennis tournament was to see it as a matter of body language. Seles' body spoke, Novotna's didn't.

More precisely, Seles' body screamed out. Every time she swung her left arm up to serve during her 7-5, 3-6, 8-6 loss to her Czech opponent, her body objected, saying, "Please have surgery now and stop trying to hit serves 100 mph with a torn shoulder muscle."

Seles, of course, pretended not to hear and persevered, as she has for months now, and as she will until sometime after either the U.S. Open or the Fed Cup in early fall.

"I've committed myself to those things before the French Open, and I don't want to change it," said Seles, who added that her disappointment at being ousted from medal contention here was "quite big."

Since she was seeded No. 1, Seles' defeat meant that the United States had lost its best gold-medal hope in women's singles. But the day was not a total loss for the Stars and Stripes-waving sold-out house here. Americans Mary Joe Fernandez and Lindsay Davenport advanced to the semifinals and will play each other Wednesday. Novotna will play Spain's Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the other semifinal.

Fernandez outlasted Conchita Martinez of Spain, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, in a match in which Martinez seemed to lose her Olympic spirit early in the third set. Davenport, the Murietta Valley High School graduate who lives in Newport Beach, defeated Iva Majoli of Croatia, 7-5, 6-3, and Sanchez Vicario kept Kimiko Date of Japan on the court so long in a 4-6, 6-3, 10-8 victory that Date said she was so tired her "feet were shaking."

Seles, ever the bulldog, actually served for the match at 5-4 of the third. But serving for the match doesn't mean the same these days to a player who once could crank them in at 110 mph in crucial spots. In her previous service game, she had actually hit a second serve 56 mph.

Novotna broke back to 5-5 by chipping a service return and getting to the net for a backhand volley put-away. And once that happened, especially since under Olympic rules they do not play tiebreakers in deciding sets, Seles had pretty well lost it.

She said, "When she broke me for 5-all, it was, 'Wow, quite a few chances. How many more do you need to close this match off?' "

Novotna closed it out on her fourth match point. On Nos. 2 and 3, she had tried to chip and charge and force Seles to miss. Both times, Seles had passed her, once hitting the back part of the baseline and the second time ticking the net cord.

"On the fourth [match point] I decided to stay back and just let her miss," Novotna said.

And Seles did, by an inch or so.

But even with the close calls and the tough fight that Seles put up and the handicap she has playing with a bad shoulder that she refuses to use as an excuse--she only talks about it in response to media questions--the performance of Novotna rated high praise for one huge reason:

She didn't choke.

All too often in the past--the most infamous occasion being the 1993 Wimbledon final--Novotna's body has spoken to her through a rapidly closing throat and a rapidly underachieving heart. Monday, there was none of that, and, to her credit, Novotna was quick to point it out to a roomful of people who have been quick to point out to the public when things were otherwise.

"You have to realize, I was playing against everybody today," Novotna said. "And with all the comments some of you have made about me, that I'm not strong enough or mentally tough enough at the end, I thought that I didn't prove it only today, but already in the past. . . . To play in the stadium in her home country on an occasion like this, when you're going for the medal, I think that's pretty gutsy."

Gutsy, indeed. In fact, for Novotna, a nice body of work, all around.

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