Twenty years ago, WTA Legend Jana Novotna won the 24th and final WTA singles title of her career, beating Venus Williams in the final of the 1999 Faber Grand Prix in Hannover. wtatennis.com looks back at the Czech's historic win in the context of the WTA Tour that year.
Alex Macpherson
February 21, 2019

HANNOVER, Germany - Jana Novotna's career is often remembered as a journey towards a moment of redemption when, at the 13th attempt, she finally lifted the Wimbledon trophy in 1998.

But as every Grand Slam winner will tell you, that moment of glory has a long tail - both in terms of how others perceive them and how they handle the following 12 months, when they are announced as the reigning champion of one of the four majors wherever they go. Some players ride this momentum to scale even greater heights; others struggle to deal with the pressure.

Novotna - who died from cancer in November 2017 aged 49 - fell somewhere in between. The Czech would cut a relaxed figure on tour as she settled into her long-awaited role as major titlist. "I feel more respect from the other players while I am on the court," she told the press at the 1998 US Open, where she was a match away from hitting the World No.1 spot before losing to Martina Hingis in the semifinals. The following year, Novotna even made her first trip Down Under for the Australian Open in four years rather than opting out to give herself a longer off-season.

Read more: Jana Novotna's career in pictures

Jana Novotna - Hannover 1999 - Getty
Novotna with the Hannover trophy

But in February 1999, there was no sense that Wimbledon had been the culmination of Novotna's story, and nor did it seem likely that victory at the Faber Grand Prix would be the last hurrah of a career only eight months away from its end. Instead, it was something of a statement win: an "I'm still here" marker laid down by one of tennis's old guard, in age and in game style, over none other than an 18-year-old Venus Williams, emblematic of the hungry new generation.

"I have this funny game, you know," Novotna told reporters at Indian Wells that year. "Players never know what to expect from me. Am I going to hit slice cross-court, slice backhand? I can mix it up. I don't give them much pace. I know it is hard for players to handle that.

 "Today, women's tennis is all about power, huge serves, a lot of pace from the baseline," she continued. "I don't have that. I guess maybe I'm among the few players, they don't really hit it with so much pace. I go more for the placement. I'm trying to play an intelligent, smart game."

As the No.1 seed in Hannover, Novotna's route to the final was via three players she had never yet lost to - and she would maintain her unbeaten records, defeating World No.40 Ruxandra Dragomir 6-3, 6-3 in the second round, No.7 seed and World No.15 Sandrine Testud 6-1, 6-4 in the quarterfinals and World No.23 Elena Likhovtseva 7-6(4), 6-4 in the semifinals. Two decades later, Likhovtseva now remembers Novotna as a "true fighter during the matches she played" - but also off court as "humble and down-to-earth, yet very professional and passionate about what she was doing".

Read more: A tennis life like no other, remembering Jana Novotna

Jana Novotna - Hannover 1999 - Getty
Jane Novotna in Hannover 1999

Awaiting in the final was Williams, who epitomised the power and huge serves the 29-year-old Novotna referred to. Novotna had was also unbeaten against Williams in two meetings, including a 7-5, 7-6(2) Wimbledon quarterfinal thriller the previous year - and, like that match, the Hannover final would be nail-bitingly close. Williams, superior off the ground, would go up 3-1 before Novotna, chip-and-charging at every opportunity, hit back to take five of the next six games and go up a break in the second set.

With the American also intent on coming forwards, the second set was a collision of two irresistible forces - and although Williams threatened a comeback when she recaptured the break, Novotna came up with a brilliant lob to break again for 5-4, and nailed a backhand pass on championship point.

The brief rivalry between Novotna and Williams was in many ways a passing of the baton between two generations' grass and fast court lovers - but as the Hannover final demonstrated, it wasn't as simple as old-school slicing and net-rushing against modern power and big serving. Asked about the potential for a serve-and-volleyer to develop two weeks later at Indian Wells, Novotna cited Williams as a possible exponent: "I must say that what I've noticed when I was playing against Venus in Hannover, I saw her coming in a lot," she said. "I think she is trying to use her big serve, she's trying to use her height and everything to come in more. She was pretty good at that, very impressive. She came in and was very aggressive. Is she going to continue to do that even outdoors? Maybe. But if she does, then she has a great chance."

Read more: Jana Novotna's life honored in Prague

Venus Williams - Hannover 1999 - Getty
Venus Williams in Hannover 1999

Time, of course, would prove Novotna correct on that front as Williams, who would embed net play into her game and become known as one of this millennium's greatest volleyers, went on to win five Wimbledon titles. Indeed, just two weeks later it seemed as though Williams had learned what she needed when she defeated Novotna for the first time in the Miami quarterfinals 5-7, 6-2, 6-3.

"She was a smarter player than last time I played her," noted the Czech approvingly. "It really looks like she has learned from the mistakes she made at Wimbledon, and a couple weeks ago in Hannover."

At the time, Novotna also vowed to learn from Williams, declaring that "next time I will have to play her, I will have to come up with something new as well". But there would be no next time. Novotna's Wimbledon defence was hampered by an ankle injury and was ended in the quarterfinals by eventual champion Lindsay Davenport; two months later at the US Open, she announced her retirement at the end of the season. There was no singular reason, Novotna said, merely a combination of factors - but both becoming a Grand Slam champion and following it up with such a satisfying year had, she said, made her decision much easier. In retrospect, her final title could not have been more appropriate.