Friday, July 03, 2009


(seventh in a series)

Winning isn't everything. Sometimes it's the losing that everyone remembers.

In perception, the careers of Steffi Graf and Jana Novotna couldn't be more different. The German Graf won twenty-two grand slam singles titles, including seven Wimbledon championship plates, and was ranked #1 a record 377 weeks during her career. In the eyes of tennis fans, she's the epitome of what a champion should be. Novotna reached #2 in singles and #1 in doubles, appeared in three slam singles finals, was an Olympic medalist, a WTA Championships titlist and grand slam singles champion. But all that is mostly relegated to paragraph TWO in the mental bio of her career, as she's most often remembered as the dictionary definition of a "choker."

Both Graf and Novotna had Hall of Fame careers, but that's not what links them together in the collective memory of tennis fans and historians alike. When the two met in the 1993 Wimbledon final, Novotna was a 24-year old finally coming into her own as a singles player after having hooked up with her coach, four-time slam champion Hana Mandlikova. Even while playing in the era of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, the fluid but often tempestuous Czech Mandlikova won every major but Wimbledon (she reached two finals in '81 and '86, losing once to both Chris and Martina). In July of 1993, Mandlikova seemed well on her way to finally "claiming" the elusive title by proxy, with Novotna as her pupil. When Novotna took out Navratilova in the '93 semfinals, and was dominating Graf in the final, the Czech tandem was about to become the talk of the women's game.

Novotna DID become that, but for all the wrong reasons. As a result, sixteen years later, saying a player "pulled a Novotna" has nothing to do with a hamstring injury.

After holding a commanding 6-7/6-1/4-1, with a point for 5-1, lead over Graf, the nightmare that nearly rendered Novotna's career the punchline to a repetitive joke officially began, as her big lead disintegrated in a matter of minutes in one of the most unfortunate -- let's call it what is was -- CHOKES in major tennis history. She couldn't hit a shot to save her life. Novotna wasn't just simply missing, either. She was spraying balls anywhere and everywhere -- an overhead attempt infamously hit the court's sideline tarp -- in ways that made the Centre Court patrons want to cover their eyes in horror at what they were witnessing. In the post-match ceremony, Novotna finally broke down and wept on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent. The images and memories from that day are difficult to forget or replace in the mind of anyone who remembers them.

Novotna was one of the last of a breed -- a serve-and-volleyer by choice and without apology. She was a versatile player with a rare combination of power, aggression, touch and athleticism, and one whose game was virtually tailor-made for the grass of the All-England Club. Her signature stroke was a cutting slice backhand approach shot (it'd distress many of the upstarts that populate the game today who are often confused and frustrated by anything other than the pure power games that are the equal of their own) that bit even deeper into the green lawns, but she was also equipped with a serve that could put away a few cheap points when necessary and a volley perfected by years of spectacular doubles play. In a nutshell, Novotna was a complete player... but her own mental demons nearly did her in.

Her Wimbledon collapse was hardly her only mind-boggling come-from-ahead defeat. It was just the one that took place on the biggest stage in front of the most people. Among her other chokes was a loss to Chanda Rubin in the 3rd Round of Roland Garros in 1995 in a match in which she led 5-0, 40/love in the 3rd set and held nine match points. It was a pattern that it appeared she might never break.

With so much talent, and a game on par in recent years with that of Amelie Mauresmo's in terms of beauty (but with a bit more power), Novotna very well could have gone down in the eyes of many resembling the line about a talented pitcher in the movie "Bull Durham" who had a "million dollar arm, but a ten-cent head." It would have been so easy for Novotna to NEVER overcome her propensity to crumble at the most inopportune time. But she never gave up. She persevered, and ultimately triumphed over her inner demons, winning the Wimbledon Ladies title in 1998 to become the oldest (at 29 years, 9 months) first-time slam champ in the Open Era. What Novotna did five years after her Centre Court breakdown gave weight to and provided a foundation for her Hall of Fame career. After her entire lifetime in tennis was very nearly crystallized by a few tears on the shoulder of a royal, Novotna's unflinching inability to throw in the towel made her hard-found and well-earned success that much more sweet.

But in order to fully appreciate the glory of what happened to the determined Czech in 1998, one should re-live what occurred at Wimbledon in 1993. Novotna's ultimate victory at the All-England Club saved her from being preceived as a joke, but it was her most crushing loss -- not her biggest win -- that gave her career the flawed attractiveness that continues to make her a compelling figure in tennis history.

Here's how your friendly neighborhood (pre-)Backspinner saw it back then.

"The Thrill and the Agony" (July 3, 1993)

Wimbledon 1993 was supposed to be unnerved by the absence of the former #1 female player in the world after her tragic on-court stabbing.

Monica Seles was surely missed, but the outstanding 100th Ladies Championship final today which left two 24-year olds either on the doorstep of legendary status or in tears will certainly go down as one of the most enthralling and athletic in the tournament's grandiose history. Germany's top-seeded Steffi Graf defeated sixth-seeded Jana Novotna of the Czech Republic 7-6(6)/1-6/6-4 in a virtuoso display of power and finesse on the part of both players.

Novotna, plagued in the past by nerves, was seeking to tie the record as the lowest-seeded woman to win the title as she'd reached her second career grand slam final. With her talented all-court game at its finest, she seemed to have conquered her demons this week as she held her emotions in check and defeated fourth-seeded Gabriela Sabatini (to whom she had lost three matches in the past few years after having held match points) in the QF and nine-time champ Martina Navratilova in the SF. Graf had rolled through the tournament to get to the final, losing no sets and just three total games in the first week of play. The once-again #1 player in the world was looking for her thirteenth grand slam title, fifth Wimbledon crown, and to extend her twenty-match Wimbledon win streak and 32-1 mark as the tournament's top-seeded woman.

Although Graf held a 16-3 career advantage over Novotna, the Brno-born Czech with the hard serve and expert volley was believed to have a shot if she could only overcome the battle of nerves with her own psyche and win the one grand slam title her coach, Hana Mandlikova, could never snare. And for two and a half sets today, Novotna DID appear ready to make the biggest tournament in the world her final breakthrough. After holding her emotions in check for so long, the maxim that a confident and controlled Novotna was a lethal Novotna seemed about to be realized. But her rocky past came back to smite her one more painful time.

Knowing that she needed a fast start in order to avoid an early case of those nerves, Novotna rattled off a service break in the first game of the match. And even though she continued to miss first serves as she had all tournament, Novotna served out her game to go up 2-0.

The first opportunity for Novotna to succumb to the moment occurred when a net-cord volley by Graf dropped on Novotna's side of the net and prevented the German from falling behind love/40 in her second service game. Graf served out the game and then broke Novotna on her third break chance to knot the set at 2-2. After saving two break points against her, Novotna's shot down the line kept the match on serve at 3-3.

Graf broke Novotna to lead 5-3 and it appeared that the slide down the slippery slope had begun for Novotna. But after a disputed line call prevented Graf from reaching triple set point, Novotna pulled the game and her fraying nerves out of the weeds with four consecutive points to break Graf's serve and put the set back on serve at 4-5. Novotna had not crumbled, and her clutch play this past week finally looked like a normal occurrence in her game.

Still with problems getting her first serve in, Novotna nevertheless won her service game to send the 1st set into a tie-break. There, another opportunity presented itself for Novotna to fall apart.

Graf produced a mini-break to go up 2-1, but Novotna once again rose to the occasion to break back at 2-2 with one of her powerful volleys. And after twice successfully lunging for volleys to go up 4-3, Novotna hit behind Graf at the net to break her serve and go up 5-3. Up 5-4, the Czech had a chance to serve out the set.

A volley into the net by Novotna made it 5-5, but a netted Graf forehand gave Novotna a set point. Graf then served a powerful ace, followed by another point to give herself a set point at 7-6. Then, even after forcing Graf to employ a shot she rarely uses, Novotna saw a topspin backhand pass her at the net as the German won the 1st set tie-break 8-6.

Novotna had weathered the storm, but Graf had beaten her fair and square. She had not given the set away. Apparently sensing this, Novotna burst into the 2nd set and avoided yet another opportunity for a letdown to thwart her chances.

Passing the latest test, Novotna raised her dismal 1st set first serve percentage (43%, though she'd led Graf in winners 23-22) a bit and went through Graf like the defending champion was not even there. By not letting down, Novotna showed how good she CAN be. She broke Graf in games two and four, then hit a service winner to go up 5-0 and threaten an embarrassing bagel at Centre Court. Continually keeping her shots low to the grass, Novotna served out the 2nd set at 6-1 to knot the match.

With Mandlikova urging her from the stands to stay focused, Novotna continued her surge early in the 3rd set and forced Graf to make superhuman shots just to get one point. Placing first serves perfectly, making pinpoint volleys at the net, and using strategic lobs to keep Graf at bay on the baseline Novotna showed a game of power, finesse and athletcism rivalled only by Navratilova in past Championship years. Novotna lobbed over Graf to break her in game three, and broke her again in game five to take a 4-1 lead. The championship was within her grasp and, as Graf would later say, the defending champ felt the match was over.

Serving to go up 5-1 in the 3rd, Novotna held a game point at 40/30. She had one last chance to succumb to the moment. And, unfortunately, she could hold back the flood no longer, as the onrushing waters essentially drowned her.

She double-faulted. Deuce. She hit a very nervous volley well past the baseline. Advantage Graf. After not missing one all day, she hit an overhead into the net. Graf "broke" her serve and was still down 2-4, but the whistle of the falling bomb was apparent to all -- especially Novotna.

After Novotna was unable to break Graf after being up 40/15 on Graf's serve, the two-time defending champ, after being allowed a breath, smelled the sweet aroma of her fifth Wimbledon title in the air. Up 4-3, Novotna had one final chance to pull herself out of the fire she alone had started. At 30/30, she double-faulted once, twice, thrice in a row to give back Graf the break lead she'd earned earlier in the set as the match drifted past the two-hour mark.

With the tide of errors now coming ever so quickly, down 5-4, Novotna could not hold her serve for the third straight time and Graf seized the 3rd set 6-4, winning seventeen of the final twenty-one points in the taking the last five games of the match. It gave Graf her third straight Wimbledon crown and fifth in six years, edging her ever so close to Navratilova's once seemingly unreachable nine singles titles.

As Graf beamed at the twist of fate that had placed her on the doorstep of legendary status, Novotna was left to attempt to ascertain what had gone wrong. While Graf is a great champion, more that she won the match, Novotna had lost it. Given it away, in fact.

At the trophy presentation, the full extent of this loss' toll on Novotna was evident as she broke down in tears in the arms of the Duchess of Kent, who placed Novotna's head on her shoulder and hugged her. By going against her reputation and letting down her guard, Novotna had touched the hearts of the Centre Court throng, which cheered more lustily for her than for the equally-consoling Graf.

Graf is once again the Wimbledon champion. Seles is sill absent. But this year's tournament was nonetheless blessed by the coming out party of Novotna and her emergence as the new Czech force to be reckoned with. It is her indelible image, both triumphant and defeated, that will linger long after this Championships. She proved the past two weeks that she is capable of overcoming her nerves. Novotna is now 0-2 in slam finals, but remember that it took Andre Agassi and her countryman Ivan Lendl three losses before they finally overcame THEIR slam final demons, never to be tormented by them again.

Novotna has talent that can be matched by only Seles and Graf and has made progress in her battle against herself, but she has not quite reached her final goal. If she can just make it over that final hump, she will be crying tears of joy like those she did earlier this week rather than the painful ones she shed today.

But, either way, Wimbledon '93 will be the watershed event in Novotna's career. It is from this experience that she will either gain the strength to win an elusive grand slam title, or forever be haunted by the loss that she will never be able to forget.

1991 Australian Open - lost to Monica Seles 7-5/3-6/1-6
1993 Wimbledon - lost to Steffi Graf 6-7(6)/6-1/4-6
1997 Wimbledon - lost to Martina Hingis 6-2/3-6/3-6
1998 Wimbledon - defeated Nathalie Tauziat 6-4/7-6(2)

RU = 1991
QF = 1994
Doubles Titles = 1990,1995
Mixed Titles = 1988-89
SF = 1990, 1996
QF = 1989, 1991, 1993, 1998
Doubles Titles = 1990-91, 1998
W = 1998
RU = 1993, 1997
SF = 1995
QF = 1990, 1994, 1996, 1999
Doubles Titles = 1989-90, 1995, 1998
Mixed Title = 1988
SF = 1994, 1998
QF = 1990, 1995-97
Doubles Titles = 1994, 1997-98
Mixed Title = 1987

177...Martina Navratilova
112...Rosie Casals
106...Pam Shriver
101...Billie Jean King
80...Natasha Zvereva
69...Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario

1989 with Helena Sukova
1990 with Helena Sukova
1991 with Gigi Fernandez
1996 with Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario
1997 with Lindsay Davenport
1998 with Martina Hingis

167...Martina Navratilova, 1974-94 #
27...Hana Mandlikova, 1978-87
24...JANA NOVOTNA, 1988-99
#- Navratilova won 4 titles representing Czechoslovakia (1974-75), 47 as a "stateless" player (1974-81) after defecting, and 116 representing the USA (1981-94)

That 1993 collapse defined Novotna's career, but it also served as the impetus for her 1998 victory.

Truth be told, Novotna is my personal all-time favorite player. I loved her style of play, and would always find myself attempting to replicate her patented slice backhand approach shot and put-away volley combo when I'd play on the weekend. It was such a beautiful shot, and one I think I'm going to try to hit again the next time I hit the court. Oddly enough, I was also a big fan of Mandlikova's game, even though I was initially turned off by her sometimes seemingly-foul disposition on the court. Backspin Tidbit: I was actually in attendence when Mandlikova won the final WTA singles title of her career in March 1987, defeating Barbara Potter in the Washington D.C. final.. I started to take an interest in Novotna in 1990, not knowing that Mandlikova was her coach. When I found out, well, the dye was cast and I was "in" for the long haul. Little did I know how strange a trip it would turn out to be.

For me, as a fan, the fulfillment of Novotna's career-long quest to win Wimbledon was one of my most favorite sports moments ever, if not THE favorite. Sure, Nathalie Tauziat wasn't the headline-grabbing opponent that would have given the '98 final a classic feel, but what Novotna accomplished that day, viewed from the outside, was more about the road TO it than the moment itself. It was the frustrating, ire-inducing, infuriating, forehead-slapping nearly decade-long trip that made the '98 Wimbledon all the more fantastic. Anyone who's felt the depression of seeing a favorite player with slam-winning potential dumped out of a major without winning it, and all the anger and wretchedness involved in that, should imagine experiencing that for about nine years... then seeing the player ACTUALLY WIN A SLAM. Wow. In a way, it made all the vicarious pain sort of worth it. As Novotna's dream was fulfilled, I felt a sense of accomplshment, too, after having unwaveringly experienced the lows and high of the wildest ride I've ever encountered while watching ANY sport.

For a few years after the '98 Wimbledon final, I even kept a framed copy of the newspaper account of Novotna's triumph on my wall (I still have it... somewhere). It was a moment worth commemorating.

Of course, a case could be made that maybe the vigil wouldn't have lasted quite so long had Jana simply admitted early on that she'd choked at Wimbledon in '93, and gotten on with things. She never would... and then it would happen again and again through the years. Still, she did it her way and it worked out for her in the end, so that's one of those "what if" topics that could forever spark a conversation concerning the potential arc of her career. But, at this point, it doesn't matter.

In her dream season of '98, Novotna not only won the Wimbledon singles crown, but also the doubles. She reached the U.S. Open singles semis later that summer, and claimed the doubles titles in both New York and Roland Garros, too. She won four tour singles titles, finished the year in the Top 3 in both singles and doubles, and became the fifth woman to surpass $10 million in career earnings. The phrase "pulling a Novotna" still has legs, but maybe it rightfully SHOULD stand for persevering as much as collapsing. Her '98 SW19 title run, during which she took out a young Venus Williams in the QF and #1 Martina Hingis in the SF before defeating veteran Tauziat in the final, likely opened the doors to the Hall of Fame to Novotna. She was elected in 2005, even though her other career numbers, even if she hadn't won a slam singles crown, should have been enough for her to warrent consideration for the honor, one is right to question whether they would have been enough (personally, I don't think the electors would have been able to cast aside the '93 collapse and see the great forest of a career for that single tree).

Novotna finished in the year-end singles Top 10 seven times from 1991-98, and was ranked in the Top 3 from 1996-98. She won twenty-four career tour singles titles, reached twenty-two slam QF and nine SF, was a three-time RU and won the one title. In her three career slam final losses, all went three sets and Novotna held leads in each one (along with '93, she won the opening set vs. Monica Seles at the '91 Australian, and again vs. Hingis in the '97 Wimbledon final). In 1997, she claimed the season-ending WTA Championships crown for her then-biggest career title, perhaps boosting her confidence for her SW19 run the following summer.

A potent dual threat, the Czech's doubles accomplishments were even more impressive. Novotna won 76 doubles titles (6th all-time), reached #1 in the rankings eleven different times beginning in 1990, and was the year-end top-ranked doubles player in 1991. She was part of the Doubles Team of the Year six times, with five different partners, and won sixteen slam titles (twelve Women's Doubles, four Mixed). She won the year-end Championships doubles title in '95 and '97, reaching seven consecutive finals in the event from 1991-97.

She was also a member of the 1988 Fed Cup-winning Czech team, and won three Olympic medals ('88 Doubles Silver, '96 Singles Bronze and Doubles Silver).

More than nearly every other tennis tournament on earth, Wimbledon (not to mention the confines of the entire All-England Club) tends to become "special" to a handful of players. Billie Jean. Martina. Steffi. Venus. And Jana, too. She reached three Wimbledon finals, had seven consecutive QF-or-better results (and eight of ten years) during the 1990's. Maybe the only other player who's created so much drama at Centre Court with less hardware to show for it has been Britain's own Tim Henman. Still, Centre Court was the site of Novotna's worst and best days, and one year after her '98 win allowed her to bask in the glory of her accomplishment one more time when she walked onto the hallowed ground as defending champion on Day Two of the '99 tournament.

(That day, June 22, 1999, was a remarkable day otherwise, as well. On Day Two, Jelena Dokic upset #1 Hingis in the 1st Round, and the previously-retired Boris Becker returned to Wimbledon and pulled off the last of his great dramatic SW19 moments, coming back from 0-2 sets down to defeat unknown Miles MacLaughlan.)

Ironically or not, Novotna and Graf ended up retiring from the game within months of each other late in 1999, after the German had salted away slam #22 in Paris in the springtime.

Novotna has returned to Wimbledon in recent years (including 2009), playing in the senior invitational matches at the Club during the fortnight. Looking super-fit while competing, and winning three consecutive 35+ titles from 2004-06, she made one wonder if she could still compete on tour. In a game where 38-year old Kimiko Date-Krumm can return to the court after a twelve-year absence, the now 40-year old Novotna, too, surely COULD be an intriguing factor today if she were to embark on a mini-comeback in doubles. But, alas, she has never expressed any Date-esque desires.

In the end, Novotna SHOULD be proof that if a player talented enough to win a slam chooses to keep working toward her goal she CAN achieve it. She had every reason to think her slam window had closed as she approached 30, but she never gave up hope and DID prevail before she called it a career. Seen in the correct light, her career story is one of encouragement to players such as current #1 Dinara Safina or past slam finalist Elena Dementieva (I'd say Nadia Petrova, too, but that might be a case of me wishing to re-live the magic of Novotna's career-long trek, if on a smaller scale), who have so far had a difficult time reaching their full potential on the grand slam stage. Hope should never be lost.

But, as I said, sometimes it's the losing that everyone remembers. From this day on, you'll surely see the image of Novotna crying on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent more often than one of her holding the Venus Rosewater Dish... but BOTH should be remembered equally.

Novotna worked too hard for that to not be the case.

All for now.

PREVIOUS TIME CAPSULES: 1987 Roland Garros (Graf), 1989 Roland Garros (Sanchez/Chang), 1990 Wimbledon (Navratilova), 1990 Wimbledon (Edberg/Becker), 1991 U.S. Open (Connors), 1993 Australian Open (Seles & Courier)

NEXT UP IN 2009:
2003 & 2005 U.S. Open - Queen Justine & Killer Kim: The Belgians Take New York


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