Sporting Life

Novotna's passing is a tragedy, but laud the triumph of her spirit

Jana Novotna scrapped and volleyed, sliced and smiled, choked and cried, but never quit till she found the trophy she desired. She withstood the worst of defeats till she found her best day. She deserved, as a friend poignantly wrote, more than 49 years.

Novotna's passing has left a deep stain of sadness and also a bewilderment. The death of an athlete always seems incongruous for they advertise life. By virtue of spending a life pushing physical boundaries they offer the illusion of being too strong to ever be felled. Invincibility can seem like immortality, but these are not gods. Indeed, Novotna's story was the most human of tales.

She was not a legend or a star but an elegant athlete from the Czech Republic in a long white headband with a fluent serve-volley game. At Wimbledon 1993, she beat Gabriela Sabatini and Martina Navratilova and then collapsed late in the final against Steffi Graf in a performance both painful and moving. Only in sport is a human being's frailty revealed in the full public glare, to be commented on and taped and stored for later examination.

The details we know by heart: Novotna led 4-1, 40-30 in the third set and then double-faulted. She hit volleys long and smashes into the net, suffered a psychological cave-in and lost. Even seven years later, in 2000, Malcolm Gladwell's essay in the New Yorker titled The Art of Failure would begin with her example.

We admire champions like Graf for they shrug off adversity and appear to wear pressure as easily as a Gucci jacket. But in the democracy of arenas, we are drawn to many stories. To underdogs, long-shots, the knocked down and the persistent. To athletes, like Novotna, too flawed to be machines and susceptible to nerves just like us. To players who aren't great but try desperately to forge a great moment, who almost get there only to be tripped by the terror of winning.

That Saturday in July she cried and if tears in defeat are common then those will forever remain unusual. At Wimbledon, champions greet royalty with a little deference and keep their distance, but as Novotna wept the Duchess of Kent, 35 years older, saw a young woman in distress and just naturally put her arm around her and drew her in and gave her a shoulder to weep on.

No status, no privilege, no nonsense: just two women and a very human understanding of loss.

Jana Novotna shows her delight after winning the Wimbledon singles final against Nathalie Tauziat in 1998. Her dramatic loss to Steffi Graf in the 1993 final was followed by a loss to Martina Hingis in the 1997 final.
Jana Novotna shows her delight after winning the Wimbledon singles final against Nathalie Tauziat in 1998. Her dramatic loss to Steffi Graf in the 1993 final was followed by a loss to Martina Hingis in the 1997 final. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

We admire champions like Graf for they shrug off adversity and appear to wear pressure as easily as a Gucci jacket. But in the democracy of arenas, we are drawn to many stories. To athletes, like Novotna, too flawed to be machines and susceptible to nerves just like us.

When she went to the US Open after Wimbledon that year, Novotna was asked about her collapse. And again. And again. Like stitches to a wound pulled open. Then she lost the 1997 Wimbledon final to Martina Hingis and even Kipling might have flinched. The writer's words, "If you can meet with triumph and disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same" are painted on the wall at Wimbledon, but how much disaster even he never said.

It had to weigh on the Czech and weeks ago, while talking about the devastation of defeat, the chess maestro Garry Kasparov told me that after key losses "some great players, they just couldn't survive this blow".

But Novotna did, she kept pushing and won Wimbledon in 1998 and tennis wore a wide grin. Because hope had flared and grit had got its medal and persistence paid off and a fairytale had been fought for. Of course that day she cried. You, too?

Now cancer has claimed her too early, but the Czech has stylishly left her mark. On the very trophy that was once elusive, her name forever survives.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2017, with the headline 'Novotna's passing is a tragedy, but laud the triumph of her spirit'. Print Edition | Subscribe