Jana Novotna, who has died of cancer at 49, will forever be remembered for a moment of tears in defeat on Centre Court at Wimbledon, as much as the 100 titles she won in a long and lauded tennis career.
The Czech player, who was inducted into the sport’s hall of fame in 2005, struggled to contain her emotions after losing to Steffi Graf in the 1993 final at the All England Club, and the image of the Duchess of Kent consoling her during the trophy presentation is among the most enduring of the championships.
She was in sight of victory, leading 4-1 in the third set, when the German took five games in a row to win 7-6 (6), 1-6, 6-4. When Novotna began crying after being presented with the runner-up’s plate, the Duchess of Kent put an arm around her and whispered: “Don’t worry, you’ll win this one day.”
She lost to Martina Hingis in the final four years later but won the title in 1998, beating the French player Nathalie Tauziat (whose cousin, Didier Deschamps, a week later captained France to the World Cup title in Paris). At 29 years and nine months, Novotna was the oldest first-time winner of a slam singles title in the Open era.
3 July 1993, Wimbledon final
Four-one up in the final set against Steffi Graf, Jana Novotna was poised to pull off one of Centre Court's great upsets when she served for the point to go a further game ahead and, in all likelihood, beyond the reach of her opponent. 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.
The shock of her collapse finally struck as she collected her runner's-up medal from the Duchess of Kent. 'I wanted to handle myself well,' she said later, 'but when she smiled at me I just let go.' As she wept, Novotna was consoled by the Duchess. 'Don't worry Jana,' she said. 'I know you can do it.' Indeed, she did. Five years later, she was Wimbledon champion
In a 2015 interview with the BBC, Novotna said of the 1993 final: “The next day, even though I was sad and disappointed, I opened the newspaper and my picture with the Duchess of Kent was on the front pages. For a moment it felt like I was the winner and that was a great feeling. 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.
“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. 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.”
Novotna, like many players of her era, was most comfortable playing at the net, a serve-volleyer of the excellent judgment and touch. Her forte was doubles, in which she won 12 grand slam titles – including the full set of Wimbledon, Australian, French and the US – as well as four in mixed doubles, but she was widely respected in singles, also.
Novotna’s singles game flourished under the tutelage of her compatriot, Hana Mandlikova, and she earned $10m in a career in which she won more than 500 matches, beating some of the best players in the game, mostly on grass, where her skills were seen to best advantage. Her doubles partners included Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, Gigi Fernández and Helena Sukova.
She came to prominence in singles at the Australian Open in 1991 when, against all expectations, she beat Graf for the first time in 11 attempts on her way to the final, where she lost in three sets to Monica Seles.
Novotna won silver in the doubles at the 1988 Olympics and again in 1996 at Atlanta, where she also won bronze in the singles. She was ranked No1 in the world in doubles in 1990 and No2 in singles in 1997. Over 14 years, she won 24 singles titles at all levels and 76 in doubles. After retiring in 1999, Novotna briefly did commentary for the BBC at Wimbledon.
It is a measure of the esteem in which she was held on and off the court that the tributes arrived from all quarters of the sport on Monday.
“Jana was as kind as she was athletic, as smart as she was competitive,” the former world No1 Pam Shriver said. “I can’t believe she is gone this soon. Her smile lives forever young.”
It was a sentiment echoed by the former British No1 Andrew Castle who said: “She was good fun of an evening, a champion on court, so tough to play against. And her smile was wonderful.”
Jo Durie, who lost all her five matches against Novotna, tweeted: “Oh no how terrible sad. All thoughts to her family and friends. So glad Jana won Wimbledon. Such a fighter on court & a wicked sense of humour.”