Jana Novotna (1968 –2017): Queen of most famous tennis meltdown
Jana Novotna, who died on Monday, appeared to be on verge winning the 1993 Wimbledon final against Steffi Graf. Up 4-1 in the final set against Steffi Graf, Novotna lost the match, 7-6 (8-6), 1-6, 6-4. The Czech tennis player later cried on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder.tennis Updated: Nov 20, 2017 23:01 IST
Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna was a true winner but it was the misfortune of the brilliant Czech, who died on Monday aged 49, to always be recalled for one of sport’s most famous and heart-rending meltdowns despite her collection of 100 tennis titles.
After Novotna’s death following a long fight with cancer, Wimbledon, the tournament where she really made her name in both defeat and victory, paid tribute to her as “a true champion in all senses of the word”.
For even though she was victorious as singles champion there in 1998, it was five years earlier on the same Centre Court that she really captured the imagination -- and sympathy -- of the sports world when losing the final to German Steffi Graf.
Her defeat, conjured from the jaws of victory when she lost her nerve and confidence, is still considered one of sport’s great meltdowns as Novotna was a point away from taking a 5-1 lead in the third set only to serve a double fault.
Graf, who was to go on to become one of the all-time greats, took five games on the trot and won the final set 6-4. The failure was all too much for the then 24-year-old Novotna to take.
At the presentation ceremony, she broke down, and in one of the iconic images in Wimbledon annals, burst into tears while being comforted by the Duchess of Kent, who gave her a shoulder to cry on -- literally.
“I know you will win it one day, don’t worry,” the Duchess told her. They proved to be prophetic words.
Four years later, Novotna, whose background as a talented child gymnast helped her to hone a serve-and-volley game, reached the final again.
Again, she lost, this time to the teenage tyro Martina Hingis, but this time she was scuppered not so much by a lack of nerve as by an abdominal injury.
Yet, once again, it heightened the idea that Novotna was one of sport’s great chokers -- one reporter once described her cruelly as “No-No Novotna, the lady from Choke-Oslovakia” -- but it was a tag she always challenged feistily.
“I wanted to win myself, instead of waiting for Steffi to lose,” she once said. “Unfortunately, she started playing better and I did not. Does that make me a choker? How many chokers get to the Wimbledon final?”
She finally proved it beyond doubt when she lifted the 1998 Wimbledon crown, with practically everyone on Centre Court cheering her, by beating Frenchwoman Nathalie Tauziat in straight sets.
It seemed fitting she should be presented with the Venus Rosewater Dish as champion by “the nice lady” who had once comforted her.