Jana Novotna: Smooth and Graceful on the Court, Dead at 49

Tennis champion Jana Novotna’s courageous battle with cancer has come to an end.

Updated: Nov. 22, 2017 • 3:06 PM ET

Jana Novotna (left) exuded excellence on the tennis court.

The tennis world gasped on Monday when the Women’s Tennis Association confirmed news of Jana Novotna’s death from cancer in a statement. At 49 years old, gone was the graceful and talented Grand Slam champion who had bared her soul on tennis’ biggest stage, Wimbledon, revealing the nature of humanity in the face utter defeat: She cried. 


That was 1993. Novotna was two games from the biggest title of her career, the crown jewel of Grand Slams. She had rushed ahead of Steffi Graf with a measure of confidence, but her lead quickly disappeared like dust in the wind as Graf chipped away at Novotna’s crumbling mental capacity to persevere for the win. At the award’s ceremony, The Duchess of Kent drew in Novotna in consolation, letting her hide her face to weep in despair, disappointment and probably embarrassment.


“Don’t worry, you’ll win this one day,” The Duchess whispered to Jana. 


Five years later, Novotna won the women’s singles championship at Wimbledon. She fell to her knees, as she watched her forehand approach shot pass opponent Nathalie Tauziat of France and hit the court for the last time that day. At 29 years and nine months, Novotna became the oldest first-time winner of a singles major title in the Open Era. The same Duchess of Kent handed Novotna the Venus Rosewater Dish, this time to smiles and tears of joy.


"Jana Novotna was a brave, courageous sweet lady with a wonderful sense of humor,” The Duchess said in a tribute to Novotna via the WTA. “I am very saddened by the news of her death and all my feelings are with her family. Wimbledon will not be the same without her."


The indelible image from that day, when top-tier sport figures, especially women, were expected to remain demure, correct and dignified, Novotna flipped the switch. The last few games of that match and the scene of royalty extending kindness to a commoner will remain a poignant moment from the decade.


Novotna wasn’t a public person, yet she was keen to put the angst of that defeat behind her. She was an athlete, after all. Although her resume contained only that one Wimbledon singles crown, it brimmed with 16 Grand Slam doubles titles, four of them in mixed doubles. She also won an Olympic silver medal in doubles with Pam Shriver in 1988 and another one in Atlanta in 1996. She retired in 1999 with a total of 24 singles titles and 76 in doubles. In 2005, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI.


Jana Mandlikova, coach and good friend hired by Novotna after Wimbledon 1993, helped teach Novotna how to steel her nerves while maintaining her graceful tennis skills around international courts. Her trademark arched back when she served, her fluid follow-through on her forehand approach shots, and her remarkable ball-skimming under-spin silenced audiences.


ESPN sports analyst and 21-time Grand Slam doubles champion Pam Shriver replied to the WTA’s announcement via Twitter.

Fellow compatriot and friend, Martina Navratilova, could not express herself without breaking down into tears yesterday when contacted about Novotna’s death. When Navratilova was going through radiation treatment for breast cancer, Novotna was there by her side.


“Not sure I can talk; I don’t want to keep crying,” Navratilova, the greatest Czech-born tennis champion, said on Monday via The New York Times.


Navratilova added, “Jana was simply amazing to me when I was going through the radiation treatments in Paris and since we lived so close to each other then, we spent a lot of time together. Her support to me was unwavering.”


Twenty-two years after her disastrous fumble at Wimbledon, Novotna granted an interview to the BBC. She reminisced about the morning that followed her loss. Of course, she was sad, but the big photograph in the newspaper of her and the Duchess of Kent made Novotna perk up. 


"For a moment, it felt like I was the winner and that was a great feeling,” Novotna reminisced. “I still have the newspapers, they're beautiful pictures and I think it showed the human side of professional tennis, which most of the people came to remember instead of me losing."

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