I am saddened to hear about Jana Novotna’s passing away after a battle with cancer. Her career numbers speak for themselves. Novotna won a Wimbledon singles title in 1998 after runner-up finishes in 1997 and 1993. She was also runner-up at the 1991 Australian Open. Novotna also won 3 Olympic medals (silver in doubles in 1996 and 1988 and bronze in singles in 1996), 12 grand slam doubles titles, 4 grand slam mixed-doubles titles, a Federation Cup title, and a year-end title. Novotna also attained a career-high #2 ranking in singles and #1 ranking in doubles.
A Glimpse of Humanity
All of the above is incredibly impressive. As fans of tennis, we never really know a player. We may see aspects of their personality in a given match or interview, we may even have a happy (or horror) story about an interaction at a practice court or local eatery during a tournament. Still, do we really know if a given player is kind or cantankerous? We get glimpses of who players are, but we do not see the whole picture.
In 1993, I was a huge Steffi Graf fan (still am). I remember Graf and Novotna playing a great deal in 1990 and 1991. Novotna upset all-time great Martina Navratilova in the semifinal round. I knew that Novotna could be dangerous to Graf as she had beaten Steffi at the 1991 Australian Open. I liked watching Novotna play because I attempted to attack the net as a junior player. Still, my rooting interests were in Graf’s corner even as I worried about what a gifted attacking player could do against Graf on grass.
I watched the first set with a lot of angst. Graf won the set 7-6 (8-6 in the tiebreak), but it struck me that Graf was being outplayed. I hoped that Graf would relax with a one-set lead and that Novotna might feel deflated by losing a set she could have won. Instead, Novotna ran through the second set with a 6-1 score.
Like any fan, I was dismayed. When Novotna raced to a 4-1 lead in the 3rd set, I was disheartened enough to leave and eat a late breakfast. When I returned, Graf was hoisting a trophy in the awards ceremony. I was stunned. Tennis fans saw Novotna lose her composure and receive comfort from the Dutchess of Kent.
In life, we all have dreams. For many tennis professionals, winning Wimbledon is considered the ultimate achievement. Jana Novotna beat the greatest champion Wimbledon had known in the semifinal round. She was 5 points from victory when a 5-1 lead was close at hand. Novotna’s level dipped under the pressure of the situation, and Steffi Graf was opportunistic enough to apply more pressure. Graf won the final 5 games of the match. We all face pressure in our jobs, but most of us have jobs in which split-second reflexes are not needed to execute. Hence, the pressure we tend to face is generally easier to navigate than it is for athletes in individual sports.
Novotna was 5 points away from winning the biggest event she could win by beating two opponents who had to that point combined for 13 Wimbledon singles titles. Yet, she was labeled a choker. How many of us haven’t found the right words or actions when a pressure point in life arises? Novotna’s defeat and subsequent devastation were something most of us can relate to.
Unlike, Novotna most of our near misses are not viewed by millions of people and most of us have immediate chances to say the right thing or take a different action. Rarely are we eliminated from whatever situation we are seeking to manage. So Novotna’s situation in 1993 was an intense and peculiar study in human pressure. She did have two other chances of achieving victory at Wimbledon. In 1997, Novotna won the first set but lost the next two and became a 2-time Wimbledon runner-up. 1998 offered her a third opportunity to claim a Wimbledon title. Novotna claimed the title, and as fans, we got a chance to see a player find what to that point had been a missing piece. The joy of succeeding where frustration had existed before is also very human. Jana Novotna’s play offered a glimpse into her and our humanity. She will be missed.