Few athletes have touched the hearts of strangers to the extent that Jana Novotna did on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, 24 years ago. Novotna produced one of the defining sporting moments of the 1990s when she stumbled in sight of victory against Steffi Graf, and then dampened the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder with her tears.
That was the image we all remembered yesterday, as the shocking news arrived that Novotna had passed away at just 49 years old. She had been suffering from cancer for some time, apparently, but few had known about it. Only last year, she had been part of the BBC’s Wimbledon commentary team
What a premature end to a wonderful life. Novotna fulfilled the romantic ideal of a tennis player, a woman who didn’t just whale away like so many modern baseliners but constructed points intricately, using her exquisite backhand slice to open up a path to the net.
It might seem ironic that Novotna’s Wimbledon triumph – which came in 1998, when she beat Nathalie Tauziat in the final – is not remembered as well as her heart-breaking near-miss. But there was something so universal, so recognisable in the way she tightened up at a critical moment of that 1993 final against Steffi Graf.
Leading 4-1 in the deciding set, Novotna held game point for 5-1, only to send down a double-fault. “The whole of Wimbledon gasped,” recalls the former British No. 1 Annabel Croft. “There was this immediate sense of ‘Oh my God, is it all going to swing on that moment?’” It did, as the imperturbable Graf broke, and then reeled off the final five games to claim her fifth Wimbledon.
Later, Croft would come to know Novotna well from playing on the legends’ circuit. “I liked her enormously. She was so sweet and charming. But then, when we got on the court, she was completely ruthless and incredibly intense. She didn’t just want to win, she wanted to thrash you!”
Perhaps that was the legacy of growing up in a highly challenging era. Above all, Novotna had the misfortune of being born eight months before Graf. This was even worse than being a contemporary of Serena Williams, because Williams has at least taken time away from tennis in between her triumphs, while Graf just kept on piling up the titles: 22 majors in 12 years.
Match-ups are everything in tennis, and Graf’s trophy cabinet would have been far less crowded had she not finished with an overwhelming 29-4 head-to-head record against Novotna, who used to smile wryly and say “Steffi Graf is my destiny in tennis.”
During that tear-stained conversation on Centre Court, the Duchess of Kent reassured Novotna by telling her “I know you will win it one day, don’t worry.” It was to prove an accurate prediction, but only because Novotna used her defeat as motivation to keep striving, even until the twilight of her career.
The All England Club is deeply saddened to hear the news of Jana Novotna’s passing. She was a true champion in all senses of the word, and her 1998 triumph will live long in the memory.
The thoughts of all those at Wimbledon are with her family and friends. pic.twitter.com/IiAVEM2IxP
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) November 20, 2017
For a while, it seemed as if the Wimbledon crowd’s sympathy might spill over into pity, especially when she lost a second Centre Court final in 1997 at the hands of 16-year-old “Swiss Miss” Martina Hingis. But then, the following year, Novotna took out Hingis in the semi-final before overcoming Tauziat in an entertaining final: 6-4, 7-6. It was a fairytale moment of redemption for a woman who would finish her career with exactly 100 titles – of which 76 were claimed on the doubles court - but only that sole singles grand slam.
A week after that triumph, Novotna travelled to Prague – capital of her native Czech Republic – to play in a much smaller clay-court event. With her was John Dolan, now head of media at the Lawn Tennis Association, but then a new part of the communications team for the Women’s Tennis Association tour.
“She was the first high-profile player I got to know,” Dolan recalls. “I remember how thoughtful and considerate she was. When we went to Prague, she was feted like a queen. At the venue, there was this wall of press cuttings about her Wimbledon win – it was like papier mache, there were so many of them. But instead of talking about herself, Jana just expressed her sadness that Martina Navratilova [who had defected to the USA in 1975] had been ignored by the Czechs when she won Wimbledon 20 years earlier. That was Jana, always thinking of others.
“She was part of a dying breed,” adds Dolan, who has since published a book on the WTA tour in the 1980s. “The last woman to win Wimbledon as a serve-volleyer. She could play from the net, she could play from the baseline, and she had the precision of a surgeon. She had no weakness except her nerves, and even those she conquered in the end.”
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) November 20, 2017
Did she conquer them completely, though? Novotna always had an engaging humanity, even if that went had in hand with vulnerability. After her 1998 triumph at Wimbledon, she arrived at the US Open with a mathematical chance of becoming world No. 1 for the first time. But she squandered another deciding-set lead against Hingis – then the incumbent – in the semi-final. In the end, Novotna had to make do with a highest ranking of No. 2, but hers was still a magnificent career, and her gracious – if retiring - personality touched so many of her colleagues that social media was full of tributes yesterday.
“The tennis world is so sad about the passing of Jana Novotna,” wrote Navratilova. “I am gutted and beyond words. Jana was a true friend and an amazing woman.” Chris Evert expressed similar sentiments, saying “A sad loss to the tennis world, but a devastating loss to those of us who shared a deep friendship with her. A woman with integrity and honour. RIP Jana.”