Monday, November 20, 2017

Remembering Jana

Has it really been nineteen years since Jana Novotna transformed from a player best remembered for her defeats on the tennis court into one who best represents the resiliency of the human spirit that can be found in the world of sport? That day at Wimbledon -- July 4, 1998 -- can still be brought back to glorious life in the mind's eye and heart with a single image. One of many, of which there are quite a few, that either show Novotna crying tears of sadness, or tears of joy.

Both represent the incredible journey that the Brno-born, serve-and-volleying Czech experienced over the course of a 14-year playing career marked with so many frustrating lows that they would have devastated a lesser individual. But not Jana. Those moments inspired her, and ultimately others, to continue to try again. And again. And again. She never gave up, when so many others might have. Finally, after countless seasons of perseverance, Novotna lived her childhood dream of becoming a grand slam singles champion. And, as it turned out, all the failed attempts made the accomplishment even more meaningful than it might have been had it occurred years earlier. It didn't come easily for her. She had to earn it. And, boy, did she.

It was that drive that produced not just a grand slam singles champion, but one in doubles and mixed, as well. Many times over. Overshadowed in all the discussion during the back-half of her career about whether she'd ever shed her "choker" label and became a true "champion" was the fact that she was one of the most athletic and versatile champions of her or any other generation. Her '98 win at SW19 was a big factor, but her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2005 would never had happened had she not already been a true champion in virtually every other area of the sport before she finally was in the one way that she's now best remembered. Ironically, after being lessened in the eyes of many for so long before she won Wimbledon, her eventual win is now one of the most iconic moments in the history of the tournament that holds tightly to and reminds others of its past far more often than any of the other slams.

Sometimes good things do come for those who wait.

Today was a sad day for Backspin. Often, individual athletes represent periods of one's life, or at the very least explain the early connections you have to a sport that sustain your interest in it for the rest of your life, as you maintain a constant search and rescue mission for ideas, thoughts, moments and notions that remind you of why you started paying attention in the first place. For me, Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, undersized but scrappy and, ultimately a Super Bowl champion and MVP, assumed that role when I was a child. I was in attendance at the game in which his leg was famously snapped in two, ending his career in a nationally televised Monday Night Football game. When he was carted off the field, I made a point to watch him go until he was gone, consumed by the darkness of the RFK Stadium tunnel from which he'd never again exit as an active player. I just knew -- felt it, really -- that that was a big moment, and I couldn't not see it through until the bitter end. Later, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter acted for me as the representation of how an individual's will, force of personality (by way of leading by example) and inability to ever give anything less than their best can lift and sustain an entire empire, whether it be on a baseball diamond or otherwise. Nestled right in the middle of those periods, for me, was Novotna.

With the announcement of her death on Monday due to cancer at the horrifyingly young of age 49 -- 49... come on, she was going to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her Wimbledon title next summer -- it sort of feels as if there's now an empty room in my tennis memory where Novotna use to reside. She's *still* there, and always will be, but now the area emits only respectful silence. At some point, the memories of her will be reclaimed by the joyous feeling of watching her win Wimbledon, then replace her tearful moment with the Duchess of Kent with another with a entirely different, deeper meaner. But, for the moment, to every Novotna memory is attached a touch of sadness of what, and who, has now been lost.

Oh, I'd been a great fan of others tennis players before Novotna (Becker, Mandlikova, etc.), as well as after (Dokic, Henin, Azarenka and others). But there was something about her that struck me, right from the start. Maybe it was the smooth way she moved around the court, as if prowling and waiting for her opportunity to move toward the net that got my attention and caused me to root for her to succeed. But it was her oh-so-human frailty, as well as strength -- and, really, doesn't a player have to display some of both at some point to *truly* be beloved? -- that made me *need* her to do so. If she had never achieved her goal she would have represented something else entirely, but that she did instilled even the utterance of her name -- "Jana Novotna," with or without the Czech accent -- with a sense of hope, accomplishment, determination and the belief that, yes, never giving up really *can* make all the difference in the end.

That's not a bad legacy to leave behind, if you ask me.

While I followed Jelena Dokic's complete career, for example, more closely, I'd have to say that Jana was the player with whom I experienced the most deeply felt defeats and successes. The reason I now call Simona Halep the "Heart of Backspin" is because the Romanian's mental push/pull, struggles with confidence and nerves, and, ultimately, the overcoming (some now, hopefully some later) of it all with a moment of total triumph most closely makes me feel the way I did watching Novotna's long battle against herself before she finally rose above. The moment her Wimbledon title became a reality still ranks as my favorite moment ever in tennis, and maybe in all of sport. For a long time, I even had the newspaper headlines and photos from the following day framed on my wall. Tonight I found it. The paper has yellowed, but the memory is still fresh.

And while she's gone now -- seeing her in those annual slam Legends matches, I;d thought the pleasure of having the old memories bolstered by a few smile-inducing new ones would last quite a bit longer -- she'll always have a place in tennis history, as well in this Backspinner's heart. There, as well as on the lawns of the AELTC, is where she'll live forever.

I already miss you, Jana.

While Novotna's career pre-dates Backspin, I've always tried to make a point of talking about her whenever the moment deemed it appropriate. Usually, it's been in spare comments about lost leads or a player fighting through loads of adversity to finally come out on top. But, being how things are around here, I *have* on occasion constructed moments during which I could give her her due.

In 2011, I put together my personal "All-Time All-Backspin Team" of favorite/important players. Naturally, Novotna was on the First Team. Here's what I said about her then...

" Oh, did someone mention fighting against adversity? Yeah, well, Novotna pretty much set the template for being her own worst enemy, but coming out on top in the end. At first, I became attached to Novotna's career around 1990 because I loved her net rushing game. I've even tried to employ her much-loved backhand chip approach shot on the court in my own "tennis" game over the years. But once the Czech imploded and blew a big lead on Centre Court against Steffi Graf in the '93 Wimbledon final, then broke down in tears on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent, she morphed into something else entirely -- the centerpiece of an ultimate quest.

Sometimes investing anything in such a player turns out to be one long whole-lotta-wrong moment (see Ms. Petrova), but every once in a while you get a "Novotna moment." Five years after her biggest failure, just one of many "smaller" ones in her career (I mean, when "pulling a Novotna" can refer to failing to win a match when you have a 5-0, 40/love lead on match point, you know you've got issues with choking that even Heimlich couldn't find a way around), the Czech rose once again at Wimbledon and won the '98 title. I still consider it my favorite sporting moment, because the decade-long trek to get there made her ultimate she's-no-Hall-of-Famer-without-it victory oh so much sweeter.

Truthfully, if Novotna had won Wimbledon in '93 she might not have risen to the place in my personal hierarchy of players where she ended up residing. The experience of losing "with" her had made the difference. Interestingly, on the same day in June '99 that Novotna returned to SW19 to bask in the glow of her '98 title, (fellow First Team member) Dokic burst onto the scene with her match against Hingis. The torch was passed. But that wasn't all... it was also the same day that (fellow First Team member) Boris Becker returned to the courts at Wimbledon after a brief retirement. "

This year's "Backspin Court of Appeals" ranking the best players to never reach #1 brought a more recent look back at Jana...

" While she maybe doesn't quite measure up to inclusion in this mix (or maybe she does), Backspin all-time fave Novotna's Hall of Fame career is worth highlighting.

One of the last true serve-and-volley players, her journey to her lone slam title was one of the rockiest -- and, finally, most rewarding -- in recent memory. (If Simona Halep ever wins a slam, her course would nestle in somewhere behind her, but not *that* far back.) Thing is, her path was quite close to being oh-so-different, as while she rightfully developed a "choking" reputation, she didn't "fail to show up" in her slam final appearances, unlike some of the players under consideration here. Novotna had good showings in her first three slam finals, going three sets against Hall of Famers Seles, Graf and Hingis (a combined 36 major wins). She was a set up vs. both Seles and Hingis, and led Graf 4-1 (with a GP for 5-1) in the 3rd set at Wimbledon in '93 before her infamous collapse. She was that close to piling up four slams wins, and one wonders if she'd gotten her maiden title in her first final appearance if she'd gone on to claim several more.


To her everlasting credit, the Czech was never mentally defeated by her losses, and continued to come back time and time again until things finally (eventually) went her way just months before she turned 30. She had seven years with SF+ slam results in an eight-year stretch, and was a success in all areas of the sport. Her 24 singles titles were joined by 76 in doubles and four more in mixed. She's a twelve-time slam doubles champ. She did her singles high ranking (#2) one better by reaching the #1 spot in doubles, and was part of the 1988 Czech Fed Cup championship team. As Novotna aged, she got better. Prior to her '98 Wimbledon run, she claimed the '97 WTA Championships crown, and went 18-6 in her final twenty-four singles finals (after going 6-10 in the first sixteen). While her overall marks vs. the likes of Graf, Hingis and Davenport weren't good by any stretch, she was 11-10 vs. Sanchez Vicario, 5-1 vs. Pierce, 4-0 vs. Capriati, 3-1 vs. Venus Williams and 4-4 against Seles. "


Back in 2005, Novotna was inducted into the Hall of Fame. While I didn't have any sort of week-long celebration as I did before Justine Henin's enshrinement in 2016, I *had* to mention it as that summer's Wimbledon (naturally... since the two are forever entwined) was coming to a close...

" You only get to have your favorite player inducted into the Hall of Fame once, and so is the case with Backspin's all-timer Jana Novotna this week at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. The very picture of perseverance after years of close calls (and outright chokes -- even if Jana wouldn't ever admit to it), the Czech serve-and-volleyer finally won the Wimbledon title in 1998... a win which was essential to her being elevated to such an honor this week.

Oh, and Novotna and Tracy Austin actually won the Wimbledon 35+ Women's championship last week (Novotna will be playing in a doubles exhibition, along with fellow inductee Jim Courier, in Newport on Sunday). Jana looks fit and happy. Which begs the question... at 36, isn't she young enough to compete in the REAL action? She's a former doubles #1 (and singles #2) with an affinity for the Wimbledon grass... sounds like a familiar recipe for a comeback, doesn't it? Maybe that's just hope talking, though. "


As always, Jana inspired hope. She still does.

Novotna's HOF Enshrinee Page: here
The HOF's article today on her death: here

All for now.


Blogger Diane said...

Beautiful, Todd.

Tue Nov 21, 01:34:00 AM EST  
Blogger colt13 said...

Good writing makes you feel something. This is the most choked up I have been over an athlete's passing since Lauren Hill.

Tue Nov 21, 11:59:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

You never wish to write something like that. That's the first time I've ever had to do it. I've written "goodbye" posts to a retiring athlete (ex. Henin), but this was, of course, very, very different.

Tue Nov 21, 01:38:00 PM EST  
Blogger colt13 said...

So who had a better closing stretch-Sabalenka or Buzarnescu?

Not a fan of the Grand Slams going to 16 seeds. Assume that they are just floating the idea, and may scrap the idea or they would have done it for 2018. Also means I have to pick Gavrilova to win a slam in 2018, because for example, playing a healthy Muguruza in rd 1 -bad, playing Muguruza in rd 3 when she is taped up-better. A knee jerk reaction to the Sharapova/Halep match, and the fact that Ostapenko and Stephens both won unseeded.

Stat of the Week-107-The amount of doubles titles won by Czech women in the 90's.

Well, there isn't much I can add to the words that have been put out within the last week regarding Jana Novotna, but I can take a look at Czech tennis in the 90's.

If the 10's belong to Kvitova and Pliskova, and the 80's to Navratilova and Mandlikova, who did the 90's belong to? Sports is something which has copycats. Like the 2015 Golden State Warriors or the 1999 St Louis Rams, teams start to play the same style. And in solo sports, similar trends arise.

With Czech born Navratilova being #1 with a serve and volley, it was not a surprise that others would emulate that style. Jana Novotna and Helena Sukova were the most successful by far.

Singles titles Czech women 90's-33
4 players-1

Obviously dominated by Novotna, as she had 4 years in which she was the only Czech to win a singles title. Was the highest ranking singles player for 9 of 10 years-technically all 10, but took her name off the rankings when she retired. Was 18th and still the highest ranked. Next was the still active Kveta Hrdlickova(Peschke) at 44.

One person not on this list, but is for doubles deserves mention-Petra Langrova. Not on the list because the title shw won was in 1988, she has the bizarre honor of winning her first WTA a qualifier ranked 201, but never winning another one.

Doubles 90's-107-Includes Mixed(Top 5)

Novotna and Sukova both won 11 doubles slams, Sukova with 5 mixed/6 women's, while Novotna had all 11 in women's.

Novotna was the highest ranking player 7 times, no surprise Sukova had the other 3. Even their weeks at #1 almost matched-Sukova 68, Novotna 67.

Both are in the Top 10 all time for doubles wins-Novotna 76, Sukova 68, but they are also 2 of the 5 Czechs with over 500 singles wins-Navratilova and Mandlikova are expected, Koukalova is not.

The national stage brought even more accolades. After both flamed out of the 1992 Olympics, Novotna 1st, Sukova 2nd, both redeemed themselves in 1996. Novotna brought home the bronze in singles, and silver w/Sukova in doubles.

One where they surprisingly did not was Fed Cup. Although they both have a title(1988),in which Zrubakova and Sukova played singles, during the 90's, the closest they came was the 1991 SF against the US. Novotna lost her match 9-7, Sukova did not play.

In closing, I think the thing that can be noted about both, is not only the beauty of their play, but their perseverance. Both had some high profile losses(combined 1-7 GS singles finals), both lost over 50 doubles finals. But they kept coming, as serve and volleyers do, and carved out a spot in history.

Quiz Time!
Jana Novotna won Wimbledon in 1998 and finished #2. Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon in 2011 and finished #2. Who was the only Czech woman between them to finish in the Top 10?

The shooting star that was Nicole Vaidisova, who finished #10 in 2006.

Mon Nov 27, 10:30:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Well, I think you'd have to go with Sabalenka just because of the higher level of event, I guess.

Yeah, we already see an awful lot of seeds exit in the first two rounds with 32 seeds. And I agree that the big-news aspect of the Sharapova/Halep encounter might have made them think it can be like that at EVERY major. Umm, no. What it more likely means is potential great second week comeback run stories might get extinguished on Day 2. But then I wonder if I'm overreacting a bit, too, since there were 16 seeds for a long time before the increased number, so we'll probably just go back to the way it was and not notice it all that much after a year. :\

Sukova is in the final nominee group for the next HOF class, by the way. It's good to see her finally getting some long overdue notice. Hope she gets in.

Safarova was a little later, so I went with Vaidisova, thinking she got to about #7 or #8 early on.
Well, #10. Still, yes!

Mon Nov 27, 02:16:00 PM EST  
Blogger Diane said...

Well, I certainly hope Sukova gets in—it really is long overdue. Lika Hana’s, Helena’s story is wound up with Navratilova’s. When Martina defected, part of the punishment was to fire Sukova’s mother (former Wimbledon finalist) who was coach of the national team. I saw Helena play when the short-lived N.O. Virginia Slims event existed.

I don’t like the 32-seed idea but figure I’ll get over it :)

Tue Nov 28, 05:09:00 PM EST  

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