That moment is not what Novotna remembers best about the Duchess, whom she is happy to consider a fan. Novotna remembers, far more clearly, what the Duchess said to her on Centre Court last summer, when Novotna lost yet another final this one to Martina Hingis.
"Third time lucky," the Duchess said that day, in gentle reassurance.
The Duchess just might have been right. Novotna will take Centre Court for a third Wimbledon final here Saturday afternoon, and, for the first time, she will be the favorite, having already beaten No. 1 Martina Hingis in the semifinals Thursday afternoon. The No. 3 seed and one of the best female grass-court players in the world, Novotna will face 16th-seeded Nathalie Tauziat, a Frenchwoman who is making her first appearance in a Grand Slam final.
"Let's just hope," Novotna said, "what the Duchess of Kent said last year is right."
To call Tauziat an underdog in this match would be something of an understatement. The two have played each other eight times, and have split those meetings evenly, but it's noteworthy that none of those earlier matches were played on grass, which is Novotna's specialty. As a result, almost all tennis observers consider Novotna to be the runaway favorite the only fear is that the 29-year-old from the Czech Republic might somehow lose her head. That, after all, is what happened here in 1993, when she led Graf 4-1 in the third set and had a point to go up 5-1 and instead dissolved into a puddle under Graf's feet.
That match and Novotna's terribly open, terribly emotional reaction endeared her to the crowds here, for the English cannot help but love someone who loses so dramatically. As Simon Barnes wrote in The Times here this morning, the English "all identify with self-created disaster" witness England's loss to Argentina in World Cup play just a few days ago. Thus, Tauziat should find herself not only opposing Novotna, but opposing crowd will as well.
"I don't care if I'm in the shadow," the 30-year-old Tauziat said Thursday after she defeated Natasha Zvereva in the semifinal. "For me, it's no problem. I'm somebody who lives my life and I don't care.
"You know, I have nothing to lose," she added. "For me, it's going to be a nice present to be there, to be on this Centre Court with any player, I don't care."
Like Novotna, Tauziat has waited a long, long time for her moment of glory. Unlike Novotna, though, this is the first time Tauziat has come even close to a taste. A 13-year veteran of the women's tennis tour, she'd never gone farther than the quarterfinals of any Grand Slam tournament before she stunned Monica Seles here Wednesday. And after she rallied from a dreadful first set (she lost 6-1) to beat Zvereva in Thursday's semifinal, she collapsed on the Wimbledon grass and pounded the ground in a moment of indulgent celebration.
Zvereva was complimentary when asked later about the woman who had beaten her, but she gave Tauziat little chance to win the final. Ditto for Hingis, who is understandably biased toward Novotna (the two are doubles partners and friends) but still based her assessment on sound reasons.
"First, she deserves it," Hingis said of Novotna. "She's a great grass court player, and she's more experienced. Tauziat has never been there before in the finals, and I think [Novotna's] the better player out there."
Novotna certainly made a bold statement about her bid for the title in Thursday's match, which she won in straight sets. Novotna's game, so well-suited to grass, was beautiful to watch that afternoon: athletic, yet pretty; daring, yet smart. But despite Hingis's endorsement, despite her clear edge in the seedings and despite even the Duchess's potentially prophetic words, Novotna remained perhaps the only person who refused to say how big a favorite she is.
"It would seem so easy to say, 'Okay, this year I should be the favorite, I should be the winner of the championship,'" Novotna said. "But believe me, I have played Nathalie and I know Nathalie very well, she knows me very well. It's going to be a very tough match."
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