Jana Novotna remembered fondly by compatriots, fans and playing peers

by: Cindy Shmerler | November 21, 2017

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Hana Mandlikova knows the exact moment when she realized that she and Jana Novotna would become lifelong friends.

It was 1987, during a practice week just before the former Czechoslovakian Fed Cup team was scheduled to play their quarterfinal tie in Vancouver, British Columbia. Mandlikova and Helena Sukova were the backbone of the team, having led their nation to a final-round finish the previous year before falling to a Martina Navratilova-led U.S. squad in Prague. It was Navratilova’s first trip home since her defection 12 years earlier, and a raucous crowd bellowed as she, Chris Evert and Pam Shriver beat the Czechs in the final to claim the Cup.

Now, Mandlikova and Sukova were back representing their country, but they were joined by newcomers Regina Rajchrtova (who later married 1998 Australian Open champ Petr Korda) and an 18-year-old, newly minted pro, Jana Novotna. 

“I remember that we were preparing at Saddlebrook in Florida,” reminisced Mandlikova. “I didn’t really know [Jana] then, but we all went running in the morning and she was whining about it so I said, ‘Get your ass up and let’s go.’

“Then, one day we were at lunch by the pool and she was complaining about something else. So, I just got up and pushed her into the pool. She had all her clothes on and she was even holding her camera. She was pretty mad, but she got the point about being a team player.”

Thus began a lifelong friendship—one that included a nine-year stint, from 1989 to 1998, in which Mandlikova would served as Novotna’s coach. It ended prematurely on Sunday, with Novotna’s death from ovarian cancer at age 49.

Though she was diagnosed more than two years ago, Novotna had undergone treatment in her hometown of Brno and seemed to be doing well. Mandlikova, 55, last spoke with Novotna two months ago and texted with her on her birthday on October 2. On neither occasion, did Novotna give any indication of how ill she was.

“I’m totally shocked and devastated,” said Mandlikova, who called Liba Novotna, Jana’s mother, shortly after she heard the news. “I saw her interviewed on television in Prague this summer and she looked great. She had put on weight and her hair had grown back. I was so happy to see that.”

During a 12-year pro career, from 1987-1999, Novotna won 24 WTA singles titles and 76 more in doubles with 17 different partners—with everyone from Navratilova and Sukova to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Mary Joe Fernandez, Lindsay Davenport, Gigi Fernandez and Martina Hingis. In all, Novotna captured 12 Grand Slam doubles titles, including four Wimbledons, three French Opens, three US Opens and two Australian Opens. Twice, in 1990 with Sukova and 1998 with Hingis, she captured three of the four doubles majors in one season.

“Jana was a decent player,” said eight-time major champion Ivan Lendl, who last saw Novotna a few years ago during an exhibition in Prostejov. “But she worked hard on her game and played differently than most of the girls. She had a big forehand, a nice slice backhand and she could serve and volley. Through hard work she exceeded everybody’s expectations.”

Novotna also won mixed doubles titles at the 1998 Australian and US Opens and the 1989 Australian Open and Wimbledon, all with American partner Jim Pugh. She was a three-time medalist in the Olympics, earning a silver in doubles 1988, and a bronze in singles and a silver in doubles in 1996. She earned a career-high No. 2 singles ranking in 1997 and reached No. 1 in doubles in 1990. In 2005, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

“Jana was a fierce competitor and one of my greatest rivals,” said Gigi Fernandez, who played alongside Novotna in 1991, winning at Roland Garros and reaching the final at Wimbledon. “She never gave up and never gave you an easy point. She fought for every point.

“She was soft-spoken, yet intense. Her soft-spoken nature was the antithesis of her nature on the court.”

“I loved her style of play,” said former WTA pro and Tennis Channel commentator Mary Carillo. “She was always coming forward and had a nice, tight beautiful game to watch. She was also absolutely lovely as a person. Easy to laugh and make laugh.

“She had some epic fails in her life and she had to work hard to get out of her own way. But when she did, there was tremendous redemption and validation.”

Carillo is referring to one of Novotna’s most memorable moments—an extraordinarily dramatic loss to top-seeded Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final. Serving at 4-1 in the third set, Novotna held a game point at 40-30 to go up 5-1. But a combination of her nerves and Graf’s steely will led to the infamous collapse. Graf won the final five games to take the title, 7-6 (8-6), 1-6, 6-4.

A distraught Novotna dissolved into tears on the shoulder on the Duchess of Kent during the trophy presentation, prompting the Duchess to whisper in her ear, “Jana, I believe that you will do it, don’t worry.” 

“The funny thing about that is that Jana was devastated for two days after that match,” said Mandlikova. “I was devastated for a month.”

The Wimbledon debacle wasn’t the only notable collapse on Novotna’s resume. In 1995, in the third round at Roland Garros, she led 19-year-old Chanda Rubin 5-0 in the third set, with the American serving at 0-40. Somehow, Novotna lost the match—those were but three of nine match points—and then scolded the media afterwards by saying, “It’s always easier to criticize and say, ‘You had this and you had that.’ But, of course, you have to also understand that this is tennis. This is happening to everybody and we are only human beings.”

“I learned so much from Jana,” said Mandlikova. “It was amazing how she bounced back so quickly from bad losses. Almost immediately she was ready to start working hard again to get better.”

After losing in the Wimbledon final again in 1997, to Martina Hingis, Novotna finally conquered the All England Club in 1998, winning the title against Frenchwoman Nathalie Tauziat in straight sets. Just three months shy of her 30th birthday, she became, at the time, the oldest first-time Grand Slam winner in the Open era.

“That was definitely the most satisfying moment of my coaching career,” said Mandlikova. “When she climbed into the box and hugged me first, it really meant that she did it.”

“When I think of Jana, the word ‘perseverance’ comes to mind,” said Lendl. “After blowing that lead to Steffi at Wimbledon, a lot of people would have been broken down forever. But then she came back and grabbed what was the crown jewel for her. It really describes her personality that she was able to do that.”

“That win changed everything for her,” added Carillo. “Before that, she took a lot of time taking shallow breaths. After she won Wimbledon she could breathe deeply. In tennis, there are men and women who play great and then there are great players. On that day, Jana became a great player.” 

Novotna was always an intensely private person, so it was no surprise that she kept her cancer diagnosis a secret from all but her family and closest friends. She leaves behind her mother, father and a brother, Pavel. She also leaves behind a tennis community that is both stunned and saddened.

Most important, she leaves an enduring legacy that with diligence and an unwavering commitment to the cause, proving that anything is possible.

“Everyone always said she was a choker, or that she got nervous,” said Mandlikova. “But on that day at Wimbledon, Jana she proved that a champion has to have strength. Hers was that she was a fighter. That’s the way I’ll always remember her.”

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