Jana Novotna dies at 49: 1998 Wimbledon champion knew how to win, and lose, on her own terms

Jana Novotna, who passed away on Sunday, is remembered by most of her mourning colleagues for her open, brave smile. But it is the image of a tearful Novotna, being consoled by the Duchess of Kent, that will remain ever-alive in tennis memory.

The Czech player had let slip a lead of 4-1 in the deciding set to go down 7-6 (6), 1-6, 6-4 in the 1993 Wimbledon final against Steffi Graf. At the presentation ceremony, the 24-year-old had dissolved into tears and the Duchess had lent a shoulder to cry on and said, “You’ll win this one day.” And she did. In her third final at the All England Club in 1998, Novotna claimed the big, shiny Venus Rosewater dish.

 Jana Novotna dies at 49: 1998 Wimbledon champion knew how to win, and lose, on her own terms

File photo of the Duchess of Kent comforting Jana Novotna as she presents her with the runner up trophy on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Novotna had lost 6-7, 6-1, 4-6 to defending champion Steffi Graf. Getty

“I think about it all the time. I love it,” Novotna had said in an interview in 2015.

“It’s really funny because a lot of people think that losing to Steffi Graf in 1993 was a bad experience. For me, it was the best thing that happened to my life. The next day, because of everything that happened during the ceremony and during the match, I opened the newspapers and I was on the front page of every newspaper, I felt like a winner. And it really gave me so much publicity. Now it’s something that people remember more than me actually winning Wimbledon.”

The two Wimbledon championship days were at the forefront as the tennis world woke up to the news of her death on Monday. The WTA announced that Novotna had “died peacefully, surrounded by her family,” after a long battle with cancer.

“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...,” her former rival and tennis legend Martina Navratilova tweeted on Monday.

Over the years, Novotna had stacked up a collection of 17 Grand Slam titles. She had 12 women's doubles and four mixed doubles Slams to go with her 1998 Wimbledon title. Having retired from the game with 571 match wins and 24 singles title in 1999, Novotna was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.

More importantly, she was one of the last of the generation of serve and volley players. Standing at 5'9, she wasn't the tallest of players and did not have the biggest of serves. But Novotna was brave while coming forward and had great touch at the net. She took on the power hitters of her time — Graf the most notable of them — gamely and played on her own terms. She was athletic and expressive, keeping the audience invested in her.

“It’s a very unique sport and the tennis players are all crazy which makes it interesting,” she once said. “It’s so individual and you have to be in your own world to be able to do all of that.”

The 1993 Wimbledon Championships had been a breakthrough tournament for the Czech. Having lost six straight matches to Gabriela Sabatini, she had finally defeated the Argentine in the quarter-finals. Novotna had scored one of the biggest upsets of her career by beating nine-time champion Navratilova in the semi-final before taking on the overwhelming favourite Graf in the title clash.

In her first final, against a known champion, Novotna had competed valiantly. She shrugged off the first set tie-break loss, and went on to take a 6-1, 4-1 lead. But with inches from the finish line, she faltered, serving a double fault on game point. Novotna was unable to regain her hold on her nerves, or the match.

“All I was doing was going for my shots, that's the way I play,” she said of the match, years later. “It had worked in the semi-final and also in the quarter-final. I've looked at the tape and I would play like that again. I wanted to win myself, instead of waiting for Steffi to lose.”

Her second Wimbledon final too had ended in defeat, as she went down to the teen sensation of the year: Martina Hingis.

But two years later, Novonta romped past the Swiss miss in the semi-finals to get another shot at the Wimbledon title. Ahead of the tournament, Novotna revealed she had had a conversation with Wimbledon's hallowed turf, which was soon becoming her best canvas. “Said hello to him and asked how he was doing,” she was quoted saying.

In the final, she took on Frenchwoman Natalie Tauziat, who had lived through her own struggles to get a shot at a Grand Slam title. It was a nervy, tantalising and brilliant match. And Novotna got her fairytale ending in the royal court as she defeated Tauziat 6-4, 7-6 (2). “It's over, I'm quitting now,” she humoured later. “Winning Wimbledon means everything to me.”

File photo of Jana Novotna with the winner's trophy after victory over Nathalie Tauziat in the women's singles final at Wimbledon in 1998. Novotna won the match 6-4, 7-6. Reuters

File photo of Jana Novotna with the winner's trophy after victory over Nathalie Tauziat in the women's singles final at Wimbledon in 1998. Novotna won the match 6-4, 7-6. Reuters

Surely enough, the career ambition achieved, the Czech retired from the tour a year later. She had, though, stayed involved in the game, coaching 2013 Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli and fellow Czech Barbora Krejcikova for a while and also worked as a commentator.

“I'm dependent on tennis," she had said. “A day without it would be terrible.”

Updated Date: Nov 21, 2017 10:09:01 IST