In the world of sports, the adage of ‘try and try till you succeed’ is commonplace… not a unique quality, but the universal rule. All top athletes learn from an early stage that wins and losses follow each other and are a part of the journey. Cry at the losses, but accept them and move on.
But for Jana Novotna and her tryst at Wimbledon, the saying applies in a way that transcended the usual pattern of sport.
Despite becoming a singles champion at SW19 in 1998, the most enduring image of the Czech tennis player, who died from cancer at 49 in 2017, is the one after her 1993 final loss. Novotna crying on the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent at the trophy presentation is somehow more memorable than Steffi Graf’s win.
But that failure was just the start of her legacy. How she overcame the disappointment of two final losses and finally lifted the prestigious Venus Rosewater Dish on Centre Court – with a little help from the Duchess’s words – is a story of grit, resilience and the triumph of human spirit.
The ‘choker’ tag
For many in the tennis world, Novotna was a player who choked in the big matches. A superb serve and volley exponent, the Czech had the game to beat the best and was a doubles world No 1 for 67 weeks. But a singles career high of world No 2 and the sole singles Major – she had 12 doubles and four mixed doubles titles as well – was not seen as enough for a player of her caliber.
Indeed, an obituary in The Guardian mentioned this right at the start: “… fell some way short of what she would have achieved had she possessed a much steadier nerve. …in her 14 years at the top of the women’s game she won only 24 tour singles titles. Even more disappointingly, she reached the last eight in 22 of the 50 grand slam singles events in which she competed but managed to convert that consistency into just one title.”
A major reason for this was that fateful Wimbledon final. Against the top seed and defending champion, she managed to take the second 6-1, led Graf 4-1 in the third and was serving at 40-30 to go up 5-1 and within touching distance of the title. But she committed what was called the “most iconic double-fault in the history of tennis” by a WTA article. Her second serve was supposedly about three feet long and gave the German star an in. Novotna didn’t win a single game after that.
At the presentation ceremony, the photo of her being comforted by the Duchess apparently breached royal protocol but it was the front page spread all over the next day. Many a player have cried at that trophy presentation, win or lose, but not many moments have been as raw. The royal’s comforting smile had opened the floodgates, Novotna later said. The conversation, though, proved to be far more important. “One day you will do it - I know you will,” she was told. It was prophetic.
Four years later, she had her chance again. This time as well, she was up against an extraordinary champion in the form of Martina Hingis, only 16 then. This time as well, she lost in three sets. This time as well, the Duchess was there to offer encouragement. “I told her I’m getting a bit old and she said to me my third time would be lucky.”
Third time lucky
But just as the royal had predicted, Novotna was in her third final the very next year. At the 1998 Championships, she avenged her 1997 loss, beating Hingis in the semi-finals in straight sets. In the final, she was up against 16th seed Nathalie Tauziat and needed just two sets to finally cross the mental and physical hurdle. At 29 years and nine months, she was then the oldest first-time champion in the Open era.
This time, the Duchess was there to give her the winner’s trophy, saying what so many others felt: “I’m so proud of you.”
Even though it felt like a small step, it was not an easy hurdle to cross for a player who had lost the first three singles finals of her career and had a very public meltdown that was constantly discussed and reminded of.
“I don’t think I’m a choker but I’ve got a label on my back which says, ‘At the most important point in the match, Jana will choke’. The label is almost impossible to get rid of. I could win three straight tournaments and people would still say, ‘Yes, she can play well, but remember the Wimbledon when she choked’,’ she was quoted as saying in an article by WTA. “How many chokers get to a Wimbledon final?”
But what so many saw as lacking nerve, was also about resilience.
“When I think of Jana, the word ‘perseverance’ comes to mind. After blowing that lead to Steffi at Wimbledon, a lot of people would have been broken down forever. But then she came back and grabbed what was the crown jewel for her. It really describes her personality that she was able to do that,” former world No 1 Ivan Lendl said about Novotna.
That she came back mentally after a breakdown, kept fighting to reach more Wimbledon finals and eventually lifted the trophy was the hallmark of a true champion, irrespective of the number of trophies. At the end of the day, Novotna ensured that her lasting impact will be that of a Wimbledon champion.