Czech tennis player who won the Wimbledon women’s singles title in 1998
Obituary: Jana Novotná | born October 2nd, 1968; died November 19th, 2017
Czech tennis player Jana Novotna celebrates winning the ladies’ single title at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, in 1998. Photograph: Anja Niedringhaus/EPA
The Czech tennis player Jana Novotná, who has died of cancer aged 49, had a career of consistent success that would have more than satisfied most players, but fell some way short of what she would have achieved had she possessed a much steadier nerve.
In 1998, the year before she retired, Novotná became only the fifth female player to pass the $10 million mark in career prize money and in the same year was within reach of being ranked number one in the world. As an athlete she was among the best of her era, possessed of consummate skill in the dying and difficult art of serve-and-volley and an ability to deliver a backhand smash that was the envy of her peers. And yet 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.
The American player and commentator Pam Shriver, who was a good friend, explained this by saying that Novotná was “as kind as she was athletic”. Others put it more brutally: she was a choker. Novotná herself said she hated the idea of choking, preferring instead to say that she “got a little tight”.
Her most famous episode of getting a little tight is now a case study for sports psychologists. It came in the 1993 Wimbledon final when she led Steffi Graf 6-7, 6-1, 4-1, and at 40-30 in the sixth game of the deciding set had a service point for a 5-1 lead over the German. But she double-faulted to announce one of the great Wimbledon meltdowns. Not much more than 10 minutes later Graf had won 7-6, 1-6, 6-4. The Duchess of Kent, trying to console the Czech player at the awards ceremony, said: “Don’t worry, Jana, you’ll be back next year.”
That did it for Novotná – moments later her head was in the crook of the Duchess’s right arm as she cried on the royal shoulder. “I wanted to handle myself well,” she said, “but when she smiled at me I just let go.”
In 1997 Novotná was back in the Wimbledon final against the 16-year-old Swiss player Martina Hingis. Although this time it was excusable that she lost, given that she was suffering from a strained abdominal muscle, she still threw away a one-set lead and a 2-0 advantage in the final set of a 6-2, 3-6, 3-6 defeat. The Duchess of Kent was again on hand, this time, though, in the role of soothsayer rather than trauma therapist. “I told her I’m getting a bit old,” Novotná said, “and she said to me my third time would be lucky.”
And so, by royal decree, it came to pass. A year later Novotná avenged her defeat by Hingis with a straight sets win in the semi-finals and then in the final held firm in a second-set tie break to beat Nathalie Tauziat of France 6-4, 7-6. Even that stern wordsmith Rudyard Kipling would surely have forgiven Novotná her refusal to abide by his stricture, inscribed above the players’ entrance to Centre Court, to treat the twin impostors, triumph and disaster, just the same.
She did in fact cry in her moment of triumph but they were very different tears from those that followed her 1993 disaster. By the time she reached the Duchess she was almost composed and the pair clasped hands in joint celebration. “I’m proud of you,” the Duchess said.
At 29 years and nine months, Novotná had become the oldest first-time winner of a women’s singles title since grand slam events first accepted professionals in 1968. It was probably a sign of her vulnerability that it was in partnership with other players that she achieved far greater grand slam success than as a singles player. Set against her solitary singles title was a total of 12 in doubles – four of them with Helena Suková – and four in mixed doubles – with Jim Pugh.
In later years, after retiring in 1999, Novotná became a coach herself and also a member of the BBC’s commentary team at Wimbledon. As on the court, she was a natural in the commentary box without being assertive: it was said that her microphone always needed a boost because she was so softly spoken.
Having lived for some years in Florida in the United States, Novotná had returned in 2010 to live near Brno, where she had been born, in communist Czechoslovakia, to František, an engineer, and Libuše, a teacher. Despite her globetrotting she always felt happiest in the Brno area and had recently built a house in the nearby village of Omice, where she lived with her partner, the Polish tennis player Iwona Kuczynska, who survives her, along with her parents and her brother, Pavol.