Tennis writer Mark Hodgkinson reflects on the remarkable career of Jana Novotna who died on Sunday, aged 49.
Mark Hodgkinson
November 20, 2017

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. 

Novotna was famously consoled by the Duchess of Kent after losing in the 1993 Wimbledon final to Stefanie Graf (Getty)
Jana Novotna and the Duchess of Kent (Getty)

For all that, it would be a shame if your abiding memory of Novotna, who has passed away at the age of 49, is of those tears and of the day when she hit the most iconic double-fault in the history of tennis. With a service point for a 5-1 lead in the final set, she struck a second serve three feet long, which made the Centre Court gasp as probably only that crowd can. Having been just five points away from snaffling the Venus Rosewater Dish for the first time, Novotna wouldn't win another game. 

But that defeat shouldn't be allowed to define Novotna's tennis life. The Czech wasn't that Centre Court caricature, the 'plucky loser' - there aren't many of those who peak at No.2 in the WTA Rankings, and who gather 17 Grand Slam titles. Remember her for what she did rather what she didn't do. And, perhaps more fundamentally, despite being constantly characterised as such, she wasn't a choker. Perhaps for years you have been thinking about Novotna's tennis life all wrong. Far from being a choker, she was a serial risk-taker, about the boldest, gutsiest, most aggressive player on the scene. 

To be successful as a serve-and-volleyer, you need three things: some pop on your serve, good hands at net, and a big appetite for risk. Staying on the baseline offers a safe, stable existence. But that wasn't the way that Novotna chose to lead her tennis life; there was always the air of danger about her appearances across the tennis map. That day on Centre Court, when she hit that second serve long, that mistake was a consequence of being characteristically bold, not from being timid or any mental disintegration.

"All I was doing was going for my shots, that's the way I play," she once said of that defeat to Graf. "It had worked in the semi-final and also in the quarter-final. I've looked at the tape and I would play like that again. I wanted to win myself, instead of waiting for Steffi to lose. Unfortunately, she started playing better and I didn't. Does that make me a choker? How many chokers get to a Wimbledon final?" 

She also might have said: how many chokers run deep into all four Grand Slams? Away from the grass of the All England Club, she also appeared in an Australian Open final, made the semi-finals of the French and US Opens and won the WTA Finals in 1997.

As the Duchess said to Novotna that day at Wimbledon: "One day you will do it - I know you will."

For years, Novotna wasn't allowed to forget that match.

"I don't think I'm a choker but I've got a label on my back which says, 'At the most important point in the match, Jana will choke'. The label is almost impossible to get rid of. I could win three straight tournaments and people would still say, 'Yes, she can play well, but remember the Wimbledon when she choked'."  

Novotna with her trophy after her Wimbledon triumph (Getty)
Novotna finally secured her Wimbledon trophy (Getty)

Four years later, Novotna appeared in another Wimbledon final, which she lost to Martina Hingis. It was the next summer, at the 1998 Wimbledon Championships, that she finally lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish by beating Frenchwoman Nathalie Tauziat. At the time, when aged 29, she was the oldest champion in the Open era (she has since been eclipsed). Naturally, the Duchess was on hand during the prize-giving ceremony, telling her: "I'm so proud of you."

If that was Novotna's only Grand Slam singles title, she also won 12 women's doubles majors and four in mixed doubles. She should be remembered for her success on court, but also for the way she went about her business. Of course, don't forget about that very human moment with the Duchess of Kent. That's an important part of the story. But don't let that be the image you carry with you. Instead think of Novotna dashing from baseline to service-box, ready to punch away her first volley but also knowing she might be beaten by the return. Novotna's was a tennis life lived on the edge. 

Read more: Jana Novotna in pictures: The triumphs and the tears

Social media tributes to Jana Novotna

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