Jana Novotna, the Czech who turned tears into triumph

21 November 2017 02:24

Jana Novotna's story of Wimbledon redemption is among the most heartwarming tales in sport.

If you thought Andy Murray wrote the script for coming back from tears to win a grand slam title, Novotna actually did it almost 20 years previously.

Indeed, the Czech, who lost her battle with cancer aged 49 on Sunday, looked destined to be remembered only for her breakdown on Centre Court.

Born in Brno, in what was then Czechoslovakia, Novotna was encouraged to start playing the game aged eight by her engineer father and schoolteacher mother after initially taking a liking to gymnastics.

Inspired by her countrywoman Martina Navratilova, she turned professional aged 19 in 1987 and, having enjoyed early success in doubles, began to make her mark in the singles in the 1990s and was a regular winner on tour.

She had runs to the French Open semi-final and the Australian Open final, but it was at Wimbledon in 1993 where she became a household name.

In one of the most enduring images in the long history of the All England Lawn and Tennis Club, a distraught Novotna was famously consoled by the Duchess of Kent after her final loss to Steffi Graf.

Novotna had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory having led 4-1 in the final set.

She was in floods of tears as she received her runners-up prize and in a moment of unusual emotion, the Duchess embraced the Czech, telling her: "I know you will win it one day, don't worry."

Graf was celebrating her fifth title at SW19, but it was her opponent who won the affection of the tennis world - and the British public - that day.

"For me, it was the best thing that happened to my life," Novotna told Sport 360 in 2015.

"The next day, because of everything that happened during the ceremony and during the match, I opened the newspapers and I was on the front page of every newspaper, I felt like a winner."

There was more heartache to follow four years later as she again made the showpiece final, only to be beaten by a 16-year-old Martina Hingis.

With the precocious Swiss looking set to take the game by storm and Venus Williams also emerging, Novotna could have been forgiven for thinking it might never happen for her.

But she was known for her fight on court and bounced back 12 months later to finally get her hands on the Venus Rosewater Dish and prove the Duchess right in one of the most popular wins in Wimbledon's history.

Aged 29, she avenged her defeat to Hingis in the semi-finals and beat Nathalie Tauziat in straight sets in the final, 6-4 7-6 .

It was her crowning moment in the game and the second to last of the 24 singles titles she won, though aside from her ups and downs at Wimbledon she enjoyed prolific success in the doubles.

She won 16 grand slam doubles titles - 12 in the women's and four in the mixed.

She retired from the circuit in 1999 just over 12 months after her SW19 success and is remembered as a fine exponent of the serve and volley, with a fierce competitive streak.

Off the court, Novotna was thought of as kind and quiet. Her sense of humour and love for the game came across in abundance during her stint as a BBC commentator in the early 2000s.

She later moved into coaching, working with 2013 Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli and Czech Barbora Krejcikova in 2015.

She needed those battling qualities she had displayed on court more than ever to fight cancer, a disease few knew she was fighting due to her quiet, private nature.

But that was one hurdle she could not overcome and s urrounded by her family in the Czech Republic she died peacefully on Sunday night, 11 months short of her 50th birthday.

Novotna may well be remembered for her Wimbledon tears, but it is the tennis world that is now shedding them.

Source: PA