Not long before she vanquished her nerves and finally won the Wimbledon singles title she richly deserved, I asked Jana Novotna if she felt she had ever choked in a tennis match.
Novotna turned her penetrating gaze on me for a moment or two. She was very far from a fool and just as far from a poker face.
“Well, I must tell you that I hate that word,” she said.
It is an ugly word, I conceded.
“A very, very ugly word,” she said.
So what word would she prefer?
“I think you could say, ‘She got a little tight,’ Novotna said, having begun to laugh. “I like it much better than ‘choke.’”
But had she, in her own estimation and for lack of a gentler term, choked?
“I think of course I have, and I think we all have choked in our matches,” she said. “I think it’s a very natural thing to do. That’s what sometimes happens because we are humans. We are not robots.”
It was the essence of Novotna’s appeal that she was no tennis automaton. She was beautiful to watch in action. She had a smoothly sliced backhand, arched her back deeply before striking a serve, and made frequent forays to her happiest hunting ground at the net.
Some played. Novotna flowed.
But she also was, like many of tennis’s most compelling protagonists, a perfectionist in a sport where perfection is unfortunately not an option.
This inevitably created doubt and angst as she glided across the courts of the world. The fallout was often etched on her face: so different from the more inscrutable countenance of her contemporary Steffi Graf, the all-but-irresistible force of the era.
Novotna came off as much more vulnerable, much more relatable, which was why her Wimbledon victory struck such a chord. She accepted the champion’s trophy, the Venus Rosewater Dish, from the Duchess of Kent, the same empathetic, publicity-shy British aristocrat who had offered Novotna a shoulder to cry on five years earlier when Novotna had blown a third-set lead against Graf in the 1993 final.
It was a defining, affirming story arc at the All England Club, and now only the Duchess, 84, is still with us. Novotna died far too young on Sunday, at age 49, succumbing to cancer in her native country, the Czech Republic.
“Not sure I can talk; I don’t want to keep crying,” Martina Navratilova, the greatest Czech-born tennis champion, said on Monday.
We communicated by email instead. Navratilova, who defected and became a U.S. citizen, had her political differences with Novotna, but they grew very close later in life. Novotna offered support when Navratilova was undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
“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,” Navratilova said. “Her support to me was unwavering.”
Like many in the tennis world, Navratilova was surprised by how quickly Novotna’s own condition deteriorated this year.
“I did see Jana before Wimbledon, and she looked really good,” Navratilova said.
What is to be learned from Novotna’s life and Wimbledon journey?
“That the most important thing is for you to believe in yourself even if the whole world doubts you,” Navratilova said. “After the tennis collapse in the ’93 Wimbledon final and the emotional collapse after the match, to be able to pull yourself out of that speaks volumes.”
It was actually not her most dramatic implosion. That came in the third round of the French Open two years later, against the 19-year-old American Chanda Rubin, when Novotna let slip a 5-0, 40-0 lead with Rubin serving in the third set, squandering nine match points in all.
Novotna fielded the inevitable queries, put up with more references to that very, very ugly word, and set about molding herself into a steelier, more decisive competitor. She had long been a winner on the doubles court, taking 16 Grand Slam titles with various partners during her career and winning all four majors at least twice.
“Jana had all the shots, but most of all she knew where to be and where to hit those shots,” Navratilova said. “Her tennis instinct was fantastic.”
But handling the most intense heat on her own was her greater challenge, one she eventually surmounted with the help of her coach and confidante, Hana Mandlikova, an elegant Czech champion and shotmaker with a vulnerable side of her own. Mandlikova had won three of the four majors in the 1980s but could never win Wimbledon.
“They all thought it came very easy to Hana because she was so gifted and was playing such a beautiful, smooth tennis,” Novotna once told me, sounding like she could have been talking about herself. “Nobody really knew that she was even working or even training. She always gave that impression, but I think that was so wrong. I think it’s something people totally misunderstood about Hana. I know quite a lot of players, and I think she was one of the hardest working players on the tour.”
Novotna dated her rise to her decision at age 21 to ask Mandlikova to be her coach and to leave what was then Czechoslovakia in order to train abroad from bases in Belgium and Florida.
She won Wimbledon on her 13th appearance, and though she had faced all-time-great opposition in her first three major singles finals — Monica Seles, Graf and Martina Hingis — she had the opportunity in that 1998 Wimbledon final to face Nathalie Tauziat, a veteran Frenchwoman who was playing in what would be her only Grand Slam singles final.
It was a different brand of pressure, but Novotna seized the moment, closing out her 6-4, 7-6(2) victory with a forehand return winner and then sinking to her knees and covering her face with both hands as she trembled.
She had been made to wait until she was nearly 30 years old, but the perfectionist had her perfect ending. It was a poignant summer moment, one that seems all the more poignant today with winter approaching and with the realization that Novotna — she of the very human touch — did not have nearly as long as she should have to bask in its afterglow.