Jana Novotna, a Czech tennis player who provided one of the most poignant moments in the modern history of her sport when she wept on the shoulder of a British royal after losing the 1993 Wimbledon singles title, and who came back to claim the honor five years later, died Nov. 19 in the Czech Republic. She was 49.
She had cancer, according to an announcement by the Women’s Tennis Association. No other details were immediately available.
Novotna, who retired in 1999, was ranked No. 2 in the world at her peak, a player defined by her grace, skill and unflagging competitive spirit.
“Watching Jana Novotna play tennis was a pure adrenaline rush – you didn’t dare take your eye off the gifted, acrobatic athlete for fear you’d miss a shot destined for ESPN’s Top Plays,” read a description of her on the website of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, where she was inducted in 2005. “She was perpetual motion on court.”
Novotna amassed 100 career titles, including 24 for singles and 76 for doubles. As an Olympian, she won the silver medal in women’s doubles at both the 1988 Games in Seoul and the 1996 Games in Atlanta, where she also took bronze in women’s singles.
But she was best remembered for her performances at the All England club, the site of her dogged chase of a Wimbledon singles title. She came devastatingly close in 1993, competing against the German player Steffi Graf, then the top player in the world.
Novotna had been ahead, 4 to 1, in the last set. But with victory nearly within her reach, her game melted.
“Jana Novotna was poised to pull off one of Centre Court’s great upsets when she served for the point to go a further game ahead and, in all likelihood, beyond the reach of her opponent,” a British reporter wrote in an account of the game. “It was a second serve and, sensing this was her moment, Novotna strained to put Graf’s return under pressure. The result was a double fault and Graf went on to break serve. Just over 20 minutes later, they were shaking hands. Novotna had failed to win another game.”
As Novotna received the runner-up plate from the Duchess of Kent, the tennis player lost her composure and began crying on the duchess’ shoulder. The crowd honored her performance with a long applause. The duchess attempted to comfort her, saying, “I know you will win it one day, don’t worry.”
Of the scene, New York Times sports columnist George Vecseywrote that Novotna’s tears “and the Duchess’s ministrations were one of the most touching moments ever seen in tennis.”
The images of the devastated Novotna circulated around the world.
“I still have the newspapers. They’re beautiful pictures and I think it showed the human side of professional tennis, which most of the people came to remember instead of me losing,” Novotna told the BBC in 2015. “It wouldn’t sound great to say the 1993 final was the one I was most proud of because I lost the match when I was ahead,” she continued. “But it meant so much for me and maybe it made me a better player, a better person and maybe that match helped me to accomplish a lot more in my career.”
In 1997, Novotna returned to Wimbledon, competing in the final against Martina Hingis, a Czech-born teen. When Novotna lost again, the Duchess assured her that the third try would be “lucky.”
Indeed, the next year, Novotna beat Nathalie Tauziat of France to win her only Grand Slam singles title. (She won 16 Grand Slam titles in doubles and mixed doubles.) She was 29 years old – at the time the “oldest winner of a first major singles title in history,” according to the hall of fame. The Duchess was on hand for Novotna’s tears of jubilation.
Novotna was born in the city of Brno, in what was then Czechoslovakia, on Oct. 2, 1968. Her father was an engineer, and her mother was a high school teacher
Novotna began playing tennis when she was 8 years old and said her parents, who supported their family through years of Communist rule, forewent a vacation for 10 years to finance her tennis training. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
“I’m dependent on tennis,” Novotna once told an interviewer, according to the Associated Press. “A day without it would be terrible.”