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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Women's Semifinals Provide Opposite Ends of Spectrum

Tennis: Sanchez Vicario defeats Novotna in match that ends in acrimony. Davenport ousts buddy Fernandez.

August 01, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Interpersonal relations are complicated to maintain on the professional tennis tour. Consider Wednesday's women's Olympic semifinals, where two sets of players hauled their personal baggage onto the Olympic courts at Stone Mountain Park.

On the up side, there was the friendship of Americans Lindsay Davenport and Mary Joe Fernandez, who again had the unpleasant duty of facing each other across the net.

On the down and dirty side, there was the animosity between doubles teammates Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Jana Novotna, whose partnership may be in jeopardy after the cutting remarks each made after Wednesday's match.

Davenport defeated Fernandez, 6-2, 7-6 (8-6), and assured herself at least a silver medal. Davenport will meet Sanchez Vicario of Spain in the final. Sanchez Vicario defeated Novotna of the Czech Republic, 6-4, 1-6, 6-3.

Davenport and Fernandez manage to maintain their friendship even when they play. What's between Sanchez Vicario and Novotna is more a professional agreement. They have been a successful doubles team for three years but seem unable to stand each other off the court.

It's going to get worse. Novotna, never a good loser, was particularly brutal Wednesday in criticizing Sanchez Vicario. Knowing the Spaniard as well as she does, Novotna is aware of which buttons to push. And she pushed them, in one of the most prolonged tirades against another player in recent tennis memory.

Novotna complained about Sanchez Vicario's complaints during the match, which really didn't amount to much. Sanchez Vicario has a reputation for questioning calls but was pretty quiet Wednesday. Nevertheless, Novotna made something of it.

"What is really sad, what is upsetting, is that you are playing against your doubles partner and she's questioning every single call there is, even if there is no reason for it," Novotna said. "You wouldn't expect that of a player of her caliber. But it's nothing personal. She doesn't do it only to me, she does it with everybody."

Another sensitive area for Sanchez Vicario is her popularity, or lack of it. Seldom do crowds lavish applause on Sanchez Vicario and they often cheer for her opponent. It's a painful subject for Sanchez Vicario and Novotna gleefully pressed that wound.

"That's the way she is, it's her problem," she said. "I know that when I step on the court, I am a more popular player than she is. Whatever she is doing or whenever she is like that, she has to live with it. For me, the most important thing is that I know who I am and that I am more popular than she is, no matter what."

Third and perhaps most irritating to Sanchez Vicario is the near-constant dismissal of her game as being only about getting the ball back. Novotna is a rare serve-and-volley player in the women's game and never misses a chance to belittle players with other styles.

"Her game is really simple, very simple," Novotna said. "She just brings the ball back and it's up to the other player. She just brings the ball back and, even when I served a couple good serves, she was always able to give me a high ball back and I ended up two meters behind the baseline. So, it's much more tiring to play a game like I do, because I'm running back and forth, I'm approaching all the time. I'm doing something. I create, compared to someone who is just bringing the ball back."

Sanchez Vicario was stupefied by Novotna's remarks.

"I didn't question any of the calls," Sanchez Vicario said. "I think that's something that is not right for her to say. I'm very surprised that she says that. Maybe she was disappointed, because every time she has a chance, she has lost against me. But this is tennis and that's the way it is."

No sooner did the doubles partners finish their singles match than they had to go back out and play doubles on opposite teams. Novotna and Helena Sukova defeated Sanchez Vicario and Conchita Martinez, teammates, by the way, who are countrywomen but not friends.

After the match Sukova and Martinez shook hands while Novotna and Sanchez Vicario exchanged glares.

In contrast, the Davenport-Fernandez match was a veritable love-fest. Also doubles partners, Davenport and Fernandez are friends, their families are friends and they don't like playing each other. They have managed to avoid it most of the time, but last year at Wimbledon, they were matched in the round of 16. Fernandez won and said she wished Davenport had.

After Davenport won Wednesday and she and Fernandez hugged at the net, Davenport apologized for winning. Clearly, it's a unique situation in tennis.

Apparently it's unusual at the Olympics too.

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