Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna was a true winner but it was the misfortune of the brilliant Czech, who died on Monday aged 49, to always be recalled for one of sport’s most famous and heart-rending meltdowns despite her collection of 100 tennis titles.
After Novotna’s death following a long fight with cancer, Wimbledon, the tournament where she really made her name in both defeat and victory, paid tribute to her as “a true champion in all senses of the word”.
For even though she was victorious as singles champion there in 1998, it was five years earlier on the same Centre Court that she really captured the imagination — and sympathy — of the sports world when losing the final to German Steffi Graf.
Her defeat, conjured from the jaws of victory when she lost her nerve and confidence, is still considered one of sport’s great meltdowns as Novotna was a point away from taking a 5-1 lead in the third set only to serve a double fault.
It led to a capitulation that was painful to behold as Graf, who was to go on to become one of the all-time greats, took five games on the trot and won the final set 6-4.
The failure was all too much for the then 24-year-old Novotna to take.
At the presentation ceremony afterwards, she broke down and, in one of the iconic images in Wimbledon annals, burst into tears while being comforted by the Duchess of Kent, the British royal who gave her a shoulder to cry on — literally.
“I know you will win it one day, don’t worry,” the Duchess told her at that moment. They proved to be prophetic words.
Four years later, Novotna, whose background as a talented child gymnast helped her to hone a dynamically athletic serve-and-volley game perfect for Wimbledon, reached the final again.
Again, she lost, this time to the teenage tyro Martina Hingis, after being a point away from a 3-0 lead in the final set but this time she was scuppered not so much by a lack of nerve as by an abdominal injury as the Swiss swept the last set.
Yet, once again, it heightened the idea that Novotna was one of sport’s great “chokers” — one reporter once described her cruelly as “No-No Novotna, the lady from Choke-Oslovakia” — but it was a tag that she always challenged feistily.
“I wanted to win myself, instead of waiting for Steffi to lose,” she once said of the Graf loss. “Unfortunately, she started playing better and I did not. Does that make me a choker? How many chokers get to the Wimbledon final?”
She had a very good point. Winning 100 tournaments — 24 WTA singles and 76 doubles, including one grand slam singles and 16 doubles titles — plus three Olympic medals and the Fed Cup with Czechoslovakia, made her an outstanding champion.
She finally took the chance to prove it beyond doubt when, a year after losing to Hingis, she lifted the 1998 Wimbledon crown, with practically everyone on Centre Court cheering her, by beating Frenchwoman Nathalie Tauziat in straight sets.
It seemed fitting that she should afterwards be presented with the Venus Rosewater Dish as women’s champion by “the nice lady” who had once comforted her.
“The Duchess reminded me last year that if I came back for a third time, it would be third time lucky for me,” she said at the time. “She said that she was very happy that I had finally won this championship.”
So, it seemed, was the whole of tennis as the woman who had come so close to the biggest prizes became the oldest first-time women’s grand-slam singles winner in the Open era.
As her “true friend” Martina Navratilova said on social media on Monday: “Jana was an amazing woman.”