Jana Novotna was a true champion. The tall, blonde Czech was one of the most watchable players on the circuit with powerful serve and aggressive volley. Her mastery of the backhand smash fetched her 100 tennis titles, 24 for singles and 76 for doubles. But still she is best remembered for one of the most heart-rending meltdowns in sports.
The moment came in the 1993 Wimbledon final. Jana Navotna was leading against Steffi Graf 6-7, 6-1, 4-1. She was serving at 40-30 in the 6th game of the deciding set. A service win would have given her a 5-1 lead. But she double-faulted, lost the game and eventually the match. A British reporter wrote in an account of the game, “It was a second serve and, sensing this was her moment, Novotna strained to put Graf’s return under pressure. The result was a double fault and Graf went on to break serve. Just over 20 minutes later, they were shaking hands. Novotna had failed to win another game.”
As Novotna received the runner-up plate, she could not contain her emotions and wept on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent. The Duchess comforted her, saying, “I know you will win it one day, don’t worry.”
The images of the devastated Jana Novotna circulated around the world. “I still have the newspapers. They’re beautiful pictures and I think it showed the human side of professional tennis, which most of the people came to remember instead of me losing,” Novotna told the BBC in 2015. “It wouldn’t sound great to say the 1993 final was the one I was most proud of because I lost the match when I was ahead,” she continued. “But it meant so much for me and maybe it made me a better player, a better person and maybe that match helped me to accomplish a lot more in my career.”
It is true that Jana Navotna accomplished much in her career. Born in the city of Brno in what was then Czechoslovakia, on 2nd October 1968, she started playing tennis at the age of 8. Her father, an engineer by profession, and her mother, a high school teacher, never let Jana’s training go in a disarray during the days of Communist turmoil in Czechoslovakia. Navotna turned professional in February 1987. Initially, she made her name in the doubles circuit. But once four-time Grand Slam singles champion Hana Mandlikova became her coach, Navotna began to make a name for herself as a singles player in 1990.
At the 1990 French Open, Novotna, seeded 11th, reached the semi-final by defeating Gabriela Sabatini and Katerina Maleeva. But in the semifinal she was defeated by Steffi Graf in straight sets. She ended the year with a career best ranking of 13.
In 1991, Jana reached her first Grand Slam final in the Australian Open. She defeated Graf in the quarter final encounter and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the semi-finals. But she was defeated in the final showdown against Monica Seles. Though, a Grand Slam victory eluded her, at the end of the year she was ranked world no 7.
Then came the famous 1993 Wimbledon final against Steffi Graf. Novotna lost but won many hearts across the globe. She remembered the Duchess’ words and in 1997, was back in the Wimbledon final against 16-year-old Martina Hingis of Switzerland. But she lost again and this time too she threw away a one-set lead and a 2-0 advantage in the final set. Though, the defeat was not so heart-breaking for the Czech, still the Duchess of Kent consoled her saying “ I’m getting a bit old,”. Novotna said, “My third time would be lucky.”
And really she was lucky in her third Wimbledon final. Next year, Novotna defeated Venus Williams in a close quarterfinal, Martina Hingis in the semi-final in straight sets and finally won the coveted singles title after defeating veteran Nathalie Tauziat in the final. As Novotna became the oldest first-time female Grand Slam champion in the Open era, tears again rolled down her face, but this time those were of triumph. The Duchess clasped her hands only to say, “What’s all the fuss about. I told you last year you would come back and win. I’m proud of you.”
There was always a special relationship between Novotna and the Duchess of Kent. And so, as Jana left this world just at the age of 49 succumbing to cancer, the Duchess was one of the first to pay an emotional farewell to the tennis player – “Jana Novotna was a brave, courageous sweet lady with a wonderful sense of humour. I am very saddened by the news of her death and all my feelings are with her family. Wimbledon will not be the same without her.”
Jana Novotna had cancer but kept it a secret. She lost her battle against it on 19th November 2017. Though she lived in Florida for some years, Novotná returned to her homeland and built a house in a village near to her birthplace. She lived there with her partner, the Polish tennis player Iwona Kuczyńska, who survives her, along with her parents and her brother, Pavol.
Her countrywoman Martina Navratilova described her friend as an ‘amazing woman’. She posted a tribute to Novotna on Twitter, “The tennis world is so sad about the passing of Jana Novotna…I am gutted and beyond words – Jana was a true friend and an amazing woman…” It is said that seven years ago, when Navratilova was facing her own battle to the deadly disease, it was Novotna who helped her fight the illness. And once Navratilova recovered, they both enthralled the court by winning the Ladies’ Invitational Doubles title in 2010.
Doubles was always Novotna’s forte. She achieved far greater Grand Slam success as a doubles player than as a singles player. She won a total of 12 Grand Slams in doubles – 4 of them with Helena Sukova and 4 in mixed doubles with Jim Pugh. As an Olympian, she won the silver medal in women’s doubles at both the 1988 Games in Seoul and the 1996 Games in Atlanta, where she also took bronze in women’s singles.
In 1998, the year before she retired, Novotna became only the 5th female player to pass the $10m mark in career prize money and ended the year with No. 2 ranking. As an athlete she was among the best of her era having a serve-and-volley game. “Watching Jana Novotna play tennis was a pure adrenaline rush — you didn’t dare take your eye off the gifted. She was perpetual motion on court.” said a description of her on the website of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, where she was inducted in 2005.
Jana Novotna left behind some everlasting memories for tennis followers. Former Aussie Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, Chris Evert, Rennae Stubbs, Gabriela Sabatini, Karolina Pliskova and Billie Jean King were amongst those to honour her. The Women’s Tennis Association also acknowledged Novotna’s contribution to the game in a statement, “Jana was an inspiration both on and off court to anyone who had the opportunity to know her. Her star will always shine brightly in the history of tennis.”