Light, swift and graceful, Jana Novotna once glided with ease across Wimbledon’s lawns. Athleticism was her calling card. But now she’s gone. In November, at just 49, the Czech lost her long battle against cancer. Her untimely passing was the final ill-fated note in a life which, truth be told, will always bring to mind a single moment of loss.
Oddly, so many of the great WTA stars who played in the 1990s and at the turn of the century suffered wretched downsides. For all her success, at the end of her career, Steffi Graf would weep in her press conferences time and again. Maybe it was all about a great career powering down, or her many painful injuries, or the breakup of her parents and the jailing of her father for tax evasion.
Jennifer Capriati was once arrested for shoplifting, and she endured many a physical and mental trauma. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario’s marriage dissolved in a dispiriting flash, her wealth vanished and she had a painful and public rift with her parents, as well as with her brothers, who banned her from her father’s funeral. Martina Hingis was suspended for using cocaine, and Monica Seles, at the peak of her career, was stabbed in the back. Still, few WTA players have had more curious careers than the slight, sensitive Jana Novotna.
Tennis is a mental game – a cruel game. Often there’s no place to hide. And there is no more visible stage than Wimbledon’s Centre Court and no more public moment than the deciding set of a Wimbledon final – it’s crunch time on steroids. In that moment, in the vice-grip of athletic pressure, Novotna showed us just how brutal tennis can be if you allow a sliver of vulnerability to penetrate your thoughts – doubt is your foe.
In 1993, in the final set at Wimbledon, the 25-year old Czech was up two breaks and led 4-1 as she served against Graf. In complete control, she was cruising, and, having won 10 of the last 12 games, was a mere five points away from grasping the game’s greatest prize. She could smell victory – the title was all but hers. But suddenly her resolve melted.
As her confidence wavered, her arm froze. A wild second serve, a lunging volley filled with panic and her first overhead miss of the match placed her on a treacherous fast track. She double-faulted three times in the disastrous eighth game of the set. Her backhand slice, once so wickedly effective, now seemed tame and vulnerable. All was lost. She fell 7-6 (8-6), 1-6, 6-4.
Now, certainly, the Czech would be defined forever by this miserable moment, the highest-profile collapse in tennis history. But rather miraculously we soon saw one of the great moments of compassion in sport, when Novotna violated royal protocol as she was chatting with the Duchess of Kent (herself no stranger to demons) and not only touched the royal but openly wept on the duchess’ welcoming shoulder.
Jana’s acceptance of the duchess’ sympathy was a poignant, woman-to-woman moment like no other in tennis history. Not surprisingly, the photo of the fallen athlete and the British aristocrat remains one of the great images of the game.
Novotna’s loss drew a stunning range of reactions. One writer suggested that Jana had “more clutch problems than an ’88 Ford Super Coupe.” Bud Collins wondered, “Has anyone played so well and lost?…[This is] an all-time nightmare. The most astonishing Wimbledon final I’ve ever seen.”
Some piled on. One of Novotna’s unsparing doubles partners said the final was “a humongous choke…she’s the biggest choker I’ve ever seen…She’s choked all her life, in singles and doubles.”
But Simon Barnes put the devastating moment in an uplifting perspective, writing, “Novotna played a game of tennis for everyone who has ever made an absolutely ghastly mistake, or to put it another way, for the entire human race.”
Yes, Jana would go on to earn $10 million in her 13-year career. She won 24 singles titles, an amazing 76 doubles trophies and three Olympic medals. She became No. 1 in doubles and No. 2 in singles and was a shoo-in Hall of Famer.
Even so, time and again she faltered. At the 1995 French Open she was up 5-0, 40-0 in the deciding set against Chanda Rubin and failed to convert any of her nine match points – ouch! She squandered a big lead against Martina Hingis in the 1998 US Open semis and she and Gigi Fernandez couldn’t convert eight break points against Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver in the WTA Championships. There were other examples. No wonder the AP once rather cruelly joked, “As long as Novotna is ahead in the third set, Venus will be fine.”
After her Wimbledon collapse, Novotna said, “I’m not the only one who this is happening to…Don’t forget, this happens to everybody.” The truth was that Jana often was in denial and had issues processing what had happened to her on that infamous afternoon on an English lawn. Four years later, she again lost a Wimbledon final – this time to Martina Hingis.
Observers asked, could this be a Czech thing? Never mind that Czechs could call on a splendid tennis heritage and often displayed fabulous technique. The sublime Martina Navratilova double-faulted away one Grand Slam after another. Ivan Lendl took forever to win his first Slam and often struggled in finals, and Hana Mandlikova and more recently Tomas Berdych have faltered at key moments.
Lendl explained, saying, “The thinking of the Czech people is that it’s a small nation which was always occupied by somebody…They were always a little bit suppressed. Their thinking is on a smaller scale. Once you start getting better, you get more satisfied with yourself. If you don’t overcome that, you’re never going to be No. 1. Neither Martina nor I could have been No. 1 if we’d stayed in Czechoslovakia. Moving to the US has helped us make that extra step. Just by living here, you get to be more competitive. You fight harder…After a while it pays off.”
To her great credit, Novotna did fight hard and – in one of the most memorable redemptive moments of our sport – downed Nathalie Tauziat in 1998 and finally won Wimbledon. The oldest player to be a first-time Slam winner, she rejoiced, “I’ve finally done it!” Headlines blared, “Jana’s Tears of Joy.” And, yes, the Duchess of Kent presented Novotna with her trophy. The good royal told Jana, “I told you that you would be third-time lucky – if you made the finals you’d make it.”
But just 19 years later Jana was hardly lucky. Never mind that she seemed at peace with her long-ago debacle. Recalling the 1993 final, she said “[I] felt like I was the winner and that was a great feeling. I still have the newspapers. They’re beautiful pictures…It showed the human side of professional tennis, which most of the people came to remember instead of me losing.”
So never mind that Jana was once so vital, so athletic. Never mind that just a few years ago, she drove her friend Martina Navratilova to her treatments for breast cancer. The willowy blond who used her devastating backhand slice to demolish others was ultimately defeated by a relentless malady. The woman who it was said “played a game of tennis for everyone who has ever made an absolutely ghastly mistake, or to put it another way, for the entire human race,” lost her race against cancer.
Pam Shriver told the Guardian, “Jana was as kind as she was athletic, as smart as she was competitive. I can’t believe she is gone this soon. Her smile lives forever young.”