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Novotna finally wins elusive Grand Slam

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The Duchess of Kent warmly clasped Jana Novotna's hands, and this time there were no tears, no need for consoling words, no mention of the day's jittery moments bringing back memories of two final fiascoes.

This time Novotna's blue eyes sparkled as brightly as Wimbledon's silver championship trophy, and the duchess gently teased her, saying: "What was the big thing?"Winning Wimbledon last Saturday was only the biggest thing in Novotna's life, a 6-4, 7-6 (7-2) victory over France's Nathalie Tauziat that gave the 29-year-old from the Czech Republic her first Grand Slam title on the court of her most traumatic losses.

Novotna tenderly caressed the giant silver salver, kissed it over and over, and leaned her cheek on it as if it were a pillow she didn't want to let go.

"This is what I have been working for," she said, "for many, many years."

Novotna dedicated her victory to Hana Mandlikova, the coach and friend who has been with her for nine years.

"Without her, I would never have made this championship," Novotna said.

"If she doesn't win another match, it doesn't matter," said Mandlikova, a former tennis star who never won Wimbledon on her own but who always believed in Novotna.

No one could watch Novotna's performance without remembering how she dampened the duchess' white suit with sobs in 1993 after choking up and whacking the wildest of shots with a 4-1 lead in the third set of the final against Steffi Graf.

Just as fresh in memory was Novotna's loss a year ago after leading Martina Hingis by a set and a break. Suddenly Novotna could do nothing right, and Hingis could do nothing wrong.

The duchess told Novotna then that she would be "third time lucky" if she returned to the final.

"You were absolutely right," Novotna told her as they stood again holding hands at the award ceremony on Centre Court.

Novotna reached the final this time determined to rewrite her legacy, to put away the failures and excuses and move beyond being called, derisively, the best woman player never to win a major. The $620,000 winner's prize and the No. 2 ranking she would achieve meant little compared with the feeling of being called, forever, Wimbledon champion.

And the fans, touched by her vulnerability and the manner in which she breached royal protocol by crying on the duchess' shoulder, came to cheer Novotna and share with her the moment of her triumph.

"She has always felt the warmth that the people here have for her after 1993," Mandlikova said. "They took her to their hearts because she showed she was human. Now Jana talks the whole year about coming back to Wimbledon."

Yet when the match began on a bleak, chilly day, Novotna prompt-ly double faulted her first serve, then double faulted again in falling behind 0-2. A nervous murmur coursed through the crowd as if everyone were thinking the same thing: "Here we go again."

Novotna had trouble controlling her serve throughout the match - she double faulted seven times - but she played with a resolve that never wavered.

"I was really tense from the beginning all the way until the end," Novotna said. "I said to myself, `This is wonderful. How do you think you're going to win this championship without your serve?' "

She broke back against the 30-year-old Tauziat - at No. 16 the lowest seeded finalist in history - in the second game by taking charge at the net and forcing Tauziat into errors.

Then with the match tied 3-3, Novotna proved just how tough she would be when she pushed Tauziat to seven break points before putting her away with an overhead smash for a 4-3 lead.

When Novotna reached set point with a diving forehand volley crosscourt that epitomized her athleticism, she hopped up and down and pumped her fist as the crowd roared. Significantly, she didn't celebrate when she actually clinched the set on the next point on a netted return by Tauziat. Instead, Novotna breathed deeply, sighing in relief and preparing to finish the job.

Novotna went right at it in the second set, breaking Tauziat in the opening game with two volleys, a backhand pass and a backhand return as she showed off the full repertoire of her shots. But when Novotna clanked a serve off the frame on a second straight double fault in the next game, some fans started to laugh nervously. All anyone could think about was the same kind of shot against Graf five years ago. Novotna managed to get out of this predicament, despite yet another double fault, but she seemed far from comfortable.

And Tauziat, trailing 0-2, was far from finished. Revealing a solid, if unspectacular, all-court style and a grim resolve to go down fighting in her first Grand Slam final, Tauziat yielded only three points in her next two service games, then broke Novotna to even the set at 3-3.

The crowd groaned when Novotna double faulted at break point in that sixth game, and the feeling once more swept through the stadium that perhaps Novotna would find a way to lose. But she briefly ended that thought by breaking back on a fine passing volley to take a 4-3 lead.

Novotna held to 5-3, and after Tauziat held as well, Novotna served for the match at 5-4. The crowd roared again for Novotna, eager to see her close it out, but still there was the suspicion that she could find a way to capitulate. And so she did.

With the match in her grasp, Novotna clubbed an easy volley into the tape, made three other errors and finally lost the game when Tauziat drilled a volley winner.