Jana Novotna Left Us Far Too Soon

WASHINGTON, November 21, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)

Like all of us who follow or write about tennis, we were saddened by the news of Jana Novotna’s passing at the age of 49 on Sunday. The Women’s Tennis Association announced the news “with deep sadness” on Monday, saying she died surrounded by members of her family in the Czech Republic after fighting “a long battle with cancer.”

WTA chief executive Steve Simon said 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 the WTA. Our condolences and our thoughts are with Jana’s family.”

The Czech great, who was known for her serve-and-volley game, won 17 Grand Slam titles in her career – 16 of them in doubles and mixed doubles, as well as three Olympic medals. She will always be remembered for the one singles major she won – the Wimbledon ladies singles championship of 1998 – and the one she didn’t, five years earlier, also at Wimbledon.

Novotna met with triumph and disaster on Centre Court of the All England Club, and she treated those two imposters just the same.

In 1993, Novotna lost the Wimbledon final to Steffi Graf, 7-6 (6), 1-6, 6-4. Having led 4-1, 40-30 in the final set, it was a crushing loss for her, having come so close to winning the title. During the awards ceremony afterward, she found solace in the Duchess of Kent, who told the sobbing Novotna, “I know you will win it one day, don’t worry.” The Duchess put her arm around the fallen runner-up to console her as Novotna cried in her shoulder. To this day, it remains one of Wimbledon’s most iconic moments – one whose image came across my Twitter feed many times on Monday.

Five years later, Novotna, then 29, proved the Duchess right when she beat Nathalie Tauziat, 6-4, 7-6 (2), in the 1998 Wimbledon final. Tears of despair were replaced by tears of joy. At the middle of Centre Court, a long-awaited appointment with the Duchess was kept by Novotna. She received the Venus Rosewater Dish trophy and hoisted it high and proud for all of the world to see.

I saw Novotna play in person once during her professional career, in the finals of the 1992 Virginia Slims of Chicago tournament. Despite her 10 aces and 19 backhand winners, she lost a tough three-setter to Hall of Fame great Martina Navratilova, who overcame two match points to win 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-5. It was a winter Sunday afternoon on February 16, 1992, and I was part of a crowd of more than 8,000 packed into the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion. What was memorable was this: the victory gave Navratilova, then 35, her 158th career singles title, which broke a tie with another Hall of Famer, Chrissie Evert. Despite losing, Novotna was in an upbeat mood afterward. “I’m still happy with the way I played; I was the one who was pushing her to the limit,” she said during her press conference.

Novotna retired in 1999 after winning 100 tournament titles – 24 in singles and 76 in doubles. She was honored with induction in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2005. In more recent years, she was a member of the BBC commentary team at Wimbledon. “Jana was never ostentatious in her delivery, but her love for the sport shone out. She was born to play, and commentate, on Centre Court,” tweeted BBC 5 Live Sport.

Throughout Monday, many of Novotna’s contemporaries took to social media, remembering her as a wonderful player and one with such a warm, generous personality.

“The tennis world is so sad about the passing of Jana Novotna,” Navratilova tweeted. “I am gutted and beyond words. Jana was a true friend and an amazing woman.”

Added Evert: “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 honor.”

Hall of Fame great Billie Jean King called Novotna “a champion who moved with such grace. She was a wonderful ambassador for tennis.”

One of Novotna’s competitors, the Australian Rennae Stubbs, remembered her as “a respected peer, kind friend and one of the great competitors of our generation. Talented and admired.” Another, the American Pam Shriver, noted that Novotna “was as kind as she was athletic, as smart as she was competitive. I can’t believe she is gone this soon.”

Karolina Pliskova, the current World No. 4 singles player from the Czech Republic, tweeted: “She will be always the champion for me.”

Indeed, Novotna was a wonderful player, who played tennis the way it should be played. While she got the perfect ending she deserved at Wimbledon, she left us far too soon.

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.