"Growing up, I never thought thatsomeday I'd be Number 1," Jana Novotna once recalled. "I had no dreams, no goals. I picked up tennis for fun". Fun became passion and dedication, produced 24 WTA singles titles and 76 doubles trophies in 14 years.
Altogether, she won 17 Grand Slam titles, three Olympic medal and the 1988 Fed Cup. In a sport populated with powerfully built plater Novotna became an inspiration, an overachiever who, despite a fragile forehand, pushed her way towards the top.
"She's not naturally gifted," said Hana Mandlikova to Sports Illustrated in 1998. "Everything she achieves is through hard work". Novotna had met Mandlikova for the first time at Wimbledon in 1990 when she had reached the quarters.
She needed someone who could channel her fire, her desire to improve. She needed someone to push and Mandlikova, despite her initial disagreements, did the right moves. "Jana was too nice for a top player, she wasn't aggressive or decisive enough" she said.
Novotna had a decent junior career, though she was not a phenom that caught the public's eye. Raised in Brno, she started as a gymnast. Whe she was 8, her coach said her she was going to be a big girl, with no future in gymnastics.
Her father, Frank, an engineer, picked her up at practice. She liked to play football as well. It was her mother, Liba, a school teacher, to suggest tennis. Novotna didn't want to play every day, but she hated losing. “Tennis isvery fair” her mother told her when she was 12.
“You can win or lose. You cannot have both. So, do one or the other and learn from both”. At Wimbledon, she Triumph and Disaster and learned, through hard times, to treat those two impostors just the same. “Perhaps I succeeded because I never had any pressure," she said, “I had to be taught to want to win at all costs".
In 1991, on the run to her first Grand Slam final at Australian Open, she beat Steffi Graf, a natural born winner, for the first time in her career, as Fraulein Forehand was starting her 180th week at the top of the ranking.
Two years later, on the most cherished Centre Court ever, Novotna was repeating that feat. She led Steffi Graf 4-1 in the third set of her maiden Wimbledon final and held a break point at 30-40. Somehow, the match slipped away from her own hands.
Graf won 7-6 (8-6), 1-6, 6-4. “With tears streaming down her face, the 24-year-old Novotna placed her head on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent after she awarded Novotna the runner-up plate. The Duchess, serene and stylish, patted her head and attempted to console Novotna” Greg Garber wrote on ESPN in 2005.
"Don't worry, Jana," said the Duchess putting a maternal arm around her, "you'll be back next year". From that day, Novotna became known as a living manifesto of a choker. She refused that label almost impossible to get rid of.
Novotna stuck to the same charging-and-chipping strategy that defined all her career. In the beginning, in Czechoslovakia, she was a better double player: being aggressive, coming to the net made her feel to have more chances to win matches.
Novotna stubbornly replied her tactics to beat in the semifinals that year Martina Navratilova, a sort of non-existent person at home after she defected. “Growing up in a communistic regime at that time in Czechoslovakia, I really didn't have any news or footage or results about Martina”.
The similarities in their style came just as a coincidence. Graf, who eclised her in terms of silverware in the '90s, started to play better, Novotna simply said. She also testified the glory of the coming of a new baby prodigy, Martina Hingis.
Novotna, the darling of Wimbledon crowds, lost her second Championships final in 1997 as the Swiss became the youngest Wimbledon champion since Lottie Dod in 1887. This time Novotna and the Duchess had an amiable chat. ''I told her I'm getting a little bit old” revealed the Czech, “and she said my third time would be lucky”.
That year, Novotna won season-ending Chase Championships, belting 15 aces past Pierce to complete a 7-6, 6-2, 6-3 win at Madison Square Garden. Novotna, who won the prestigious title for the first time in her ninth year of qualifying for the elite 16-player event, finished the year ranked a career-high world No.
2 in singles. Then, in 1998 Novotna, capable to reach at least the semifinals in all the Grand Slam events, came back to Wimbledon, beat Martina Hingis in the semifinals then returned on the Centre Court to fulfill the Duchess's promise.
Her painstaking quest to win a Wimbledon title finally had the most awaited fairy-tale ending. Just when it looked like she was about tolose the second set of the 1998 final to 16th-seeded Nathalie Tauziat, the Frenchwoman she had beaten just four times in eight tries, Novotna rallied to win the decisive tiebreaker.
Three months shy of her 30th birthday, Novotna was a Grand Slam singles champion. “''Winning Wimbledon means everything to me,'' said Novotna, who lost her opening service game with a pair of double faults but then was able to conjure up some unreturnable first serve when it mattered the most.
''A couple of years ago” she said, “I was perhaps a little too serious, and I thought that's all it takes to become the No. 1 player in the world”. It took her third Wimbledon final to relax and celebrate, as Robin Finn noted on the New York Times, “a first Grand Slam championship that was, said Novotna, entirely worth the wait”.