Tennis world pays tribute to Novotna

Published by Matt Trollope

After falling in the Wimbledon finals of 1993 and 1997, Jana Novotna finally broke through for the biggest trophy of her career at the All England Club in 1998; Getty Images
An endearing figure to millions of fans, 1998 Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna passed away at age 49 following a battle with cancer.

Beloved tennis champion Jana Novotna’s passing after a long battle with cancer has been met with sadness the world over.

The WTA reported that the 1998 Wimbledon winner died peacefully on Sunday at age 49 while surrounded by friends and family.

It was largely unknown that Novotna was suffering from illness, with her death prompting a wave of tributes from former greats, current players and fans.

The Czech, a former world No.2 in 1997 at winner of 24 WTA titles, had a special connection with Wimbledon.

She was dominating Steffi Graf in the 1993 final but couldn’t hold onto her 4-1 third-set lead, tightening up and later weeping openly on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder during the trophy ceremony.

A three-set loss in the 1997 final to Martina Hingis followed, before Novotna finally broke through for her first major title against Nathalie Tauziat at the same venue in 1998 – one of the sport’s more popular victories.

Novotna also reached the Australian Open final in 1991, won the WTA Championships in 1997, and won 76 doubles titles – including 12 Grand Slams. She also won four mixed doubles major trophies.

“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,” said WTA CEO Steve Simon.

Wrote Mark Hodgkinson for wtatennis.com: “No doubt you’ll mostly remember Jana Novotna for a flagrant breach of royal etiquette – for weeping on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent in the moments after losing the 1993 Wimbledon final to Stefanie Graf. Tears are expected in the aftermath of every Wimbledon final – it’s almost part of the post-match choreography on Centre Court – but this was something quite different, and Novotna gained the lasting affections of the British tennis public, and of the millions watching around the world. And she also gained a friend in the Duchess, who couldn’t have cared less what the etiquette was.”

Pam Shriver, writing for ESPN, reflected on a player and friend who was one of the few people outside of Shriver’s immediate circle to call her ‘Pammy’.

“Jana chose to live with her cancer journey in a most private way. Only her closest family and friends knew her life was going to end too soon,” Shriver said. “I did not know Jana was so ill. My immediate reaction to counter my sadness was to recall my many fond memories of her from the first time we played in a singles final, in Brisbane on grass about 30 years ago, to our gold-medal marathon doubles final in Seoul in 1988.

“For those who follow pro tennis, Jana will be best remembered for one of the most famous collapses in a major final (at Wimbledon 1993) … It was a devastating moment for Jana, who had squandered the biggest moment of her career, but the setback only made for a better story when she finally broke through. Five years later, Jana won Wimbledon. I don’t recall a more popular and ecstatic locker room. We all felt she handled the collapse against Graf as well as any human could. She deserved a Wimbledon singles title. She got one.”

An obituary to Novotna in the New York Times included the reflections of several Czech tennis figures:

“When she lost to Steffi Graf at Wimbledon in 1993, I was crying,” said Jan Kodes, a fellow Czech tennis player who won three Grand Slams — including one Wimbledon title — in the 1970s. “She came to me and said, ‘Mr. Kodes, don’t cry, I will win it here one day anyhow.’”

“And she did five years later,” Kodes said, as quoted by the Czech news website Idnes. “Jana certainly was a player who became a role model for many young girls.”

Sport 360 ran an excerpt of an interview it did with Novotna in 2015.

“Graf was celebrating her fifth title at SW19, but it was her opponent who won the affection of the tennis world – and the British public – that day. ‘For me, it was the best thing that happened to my life,’ Novotna told Sport360 in 2015. ‘The next day, because of everything that happened during the ceremony and during the match, I opened the newspapers and I was on the front page of every newspaper, I felt like a winner.'”

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