Former World No 2 Jana Novotna died peacefully in her sleep, surrounded by her family, at 49 on Sunday. She had been battling with cancer for a long time. The player from Czech Republic won 17 Grand Slam titles through her career – 12 in doubles, four in mixed doubles and her solitary Slam in singles came at Wimbledon in 1998. She beat Frenchwoman Nathalie Tauziat in the final and thus became the last Czech player to win a Slam until Petra Kvitova won in 2011.
Hailed for her prolific and athletic game at the net, Novotna totalled 24 titles through her 14-year career along with 76 titles in doubles. She reached the Wimbledon final twice – in 1993 and 1997 – before triumphing in 1998. Clearly grass was the surface where she made the most impact highlighted by her foray into the final on eight occasions in doubles and once in the mixed doubles as well. She also won three Olympic medals – silver at 1988 Seoul Games (while it was called Czechoslovakia), another silver at 1996 Atlanta Games and a bronze in singles at the same Summer Olympics.
Novotna had been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2005 and had made her transition into professional coaching. She took up coaching, now retired, Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli in 2013.
Quite arguably, one of the most memorable moment from her career comes from the 1993 Wimbledon final. Playing Steffi Graf, Novotna led 6-7, 6-1, 4-1 and at 40-30 was point away from taking a comfortable 5-1 lead for her first Grand Slam title. But the Czech player double faulted and thus began possibly the biggest disintegration in the tournament’s history. 10 minutes later, Graf had her arms aloft for she had won 7-6, 1-6, 6-4. What followed was even more memorable as Novotna wept on the shoulder of Duchess of Kent. ‘Don’t worry, Jana, you’ll be back next year,’ said the Duchess and Novotna couldn’t handle herself well. “I wanted to handle myself well,’ she said, ‘but when she smiled at me I just let go,” she said later.“Jana was an inspiration both on and off court to anyone who had the opportunity to know her. Her star will always shine brightly in the history of the WTA. Our condolences and our thoughts are with Jana’s family,” said WTA CEO Steve Simon.