Few stories in the sporting world are quite as inspirational as that of Jana Novotná. The multiple Grand Slam winner was an exemplary athlete and role model to fans around the world, and although today will be remembered as the day that she lost her battle with cancer, Novotná leaves behind a unique legacy that sets her apart from the rest.
Born in Brno, then-Czechoslovakia, in 1968, Novotná first rose to the scene in 1987, but as a doubles specialist. She won titles in Miami, Hamburg, Strasbourg, and San Diego in her inaugural year as a professional, as well as making her debut on the Czechoslovak Fed Cup team. Novotná’s doubles game greatly shaped what would become a decorated singles career. Her serve-and-volley game was a breath of fresh air in a women’s tour dominated by baseline powerhouses such as Monica Seles and Steffi Graf.
Novotná, however, would find that success was hard to come by among some of the greatest female tennis players ever to grace the tour. She lost the 1991 Australian Open final to Seles despite going a set up, and infamously, she lost the 1993 Wimbledon singles final to Steffi Graf, giving away a set and 4-1 lead in the second set. Novotná famously cried on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder, and the Duchess said to her:
“I know you will win it one day, don’t worry.”
Novotná herself said that, upon reading through all of the papers the following day, it was she, not Graf, who had felt like the winner. Unlike others who have failed on the big occasion, she did not crumble, but kept going. The following year, she won the US Open doubles title for the first time, as part of a hugely successful partnership with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, as well as three singles titles.
In 1997, she made the Wimbledon final again. This time, however, she lost out to a 16-year-old Martina Hingis, having also won the first set. It seemed as though she would never get her hands on the coveted singles’ trophy at SW19.
Despite her setbacks, Novotná continued playing, and winning. She won the 1997 Wimbledon women’s doubles title alongside Lindsay Davenport, and the pair also combined to bring home the WTA Tour Championships title at the end of the season. Novotná’s singles hoodoo clearly did not have an effect on her doubles game.
The Czech began the 1998 season without much of a fuss. She won the singles title in Linz in February of ’98, but besides that, she could not seem to progress beyond the quarterfinals at any level tournament. It was her doubles game that changed things.
Novotná begun a partnership with her Wimbledon singles’ final conqueror, Martina Hingis, the previous year, and the pair won two titles together. Nonetheless, in 1998, the Hingis-Novotná partnership blossomed. The pair romped to the French Open doubles title, beating Lindsay Davenport and Natasha Zvereva in the final. The win was huge for Novotná. Her confidence was high, and the summer of ’98 would be one to remember for the much-loved Czech.
Novotná subsequently took home the singles title in Eastbourne, and on the 4th July 1998, she beat Frenchwoman Nathalie Thauziat in the Wimbledon women’s singles final, 6-4 7-6. Novotná had redeemed herself.
Novotná’s 1998 Wimbledon triumph remains her greatest achievement on the singles circuit. It was to be her only Grand Slam singles title, but this masks the magnitude of what Novotná achieved throughout her singles career. She took on the some of the best players in the history of the game whilst using a seemingly out-dated serve-and-volley style. Moreover, she won twelve Grand Slam doubles titles and four Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. Few players, let alone ones that have (although in Novotná’s case, unfairly) been labelled as “chokers,” can boast a similar record.
Following her retirement in 1999, Novotná went on to play senior doubles events, and worked as a commentator for the BBC during Wimbledon. She kept her personal life very private, and it emerged upon her passing that she had been suffering with cancer.
Novotná was, and will continue to be, an inspiration. She stands among the sport’s greats, not necessarily because of the titles that she won, but because of her journey, both as an athlete and a person. If ever there was living proof of the fact that perseverance and a positive attitude pay off, it was Jana Novotná.
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