Sport is about winners. But the 1993 Wimbledon women’s singles final was all about the loser. As Jana Novotna broke down and wept on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder, we all felt for her. She had not only lost, she had lost when victory seemed certain. She was a choker, and that’s how it looked like she’d be remembered forever. Only it didn’t turn out that way.
Jana Novotna, who has died at the age of 49 following a long battle with cancer, was different from many of the other players of her era. Born in the former Czechoslovakia, her engineer and schoolteacher parents were sporty, but not at all pushy. Novotna didn’t pick up a racquet till she was eight, and didn’t decide she wanted to be a professional tennis player till she was 14.
Novotna was 24 years old when she faced Steffi Graf in the Wimbledon singles final. She was the number eight seed. Graf was the hot favourite.
In the final set, Novotna led 4-1 and 40-30. She was just five points away from Wimbledon victory.
“I think the belief is here,” commentator John Barrett told viewers. “At moments like this in the past she has tended to choke on her leads. But I don't think it's going to happen today. We'll see.”
Fifteen minutes later, it was all over. Graf had won.
As the Duchess of Kent presented Novotna with her runner-up plate, she was struggling to hold back the tears.
"I know you will win it one day, don't worry,” the Duchess said to her in a soft voice.
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The kind words were too much. Novotna began weeping. The Duchess, a mother to children the same age as Novotna, wiped away her tears, and then, as Novotna wept into her shoulder, the Duchess stroked her hair.
''She is a very nice lady,” Novotna later explained. “When she said to me that one day I will win, and that she just knew I would, I couldn't hold back.''
Losers don’t tend to get a lot of airtime in sport. Maybe a quick shot of a resigned face and a brief comment about the better player or team winning, before the focus shifts to the winner’s joy. This was bitter disappointment, raw grief, out there for everyone to see. This is what professional sportspeople keep hidden from the public. That day, Novotna gave us all a glimpse.
Of course, Novotna’s story is also the ultimate story of redemption. She didn’t burn out, like so many other players do. She made the Wimbledon final again in 1997, where she faced Martina Hingis, who, at 16, was only slightly more than half her age. Again, she was leading in the final set, but ended up losing. This time she didn’t cry, but jokingly grabbed Hingis’s winner’s trophy and held it up. The Duchess was there again, and told Novotna it would be “third time lucky” for her.
It was. In the 1998 Wimbledon final, up against French player Nathalie Tauziat, Novotna won 6-4, 7-6. She sank to her knees, and then, after giving Tauziat a hug, ran over to hug her coach, Hana Mandlikova, and her mum Liba.
Again, the Duchess had a few special words for Novotna.
"She said that she was very happy that I had finally won this championship,” Novotna said at the time. "I'm sure the Duchess knew how much it meant to me and I told her that she was absolutely right what she had said to me last year."
Novotna, just three months short of her 30th birthday, was the oldest first-time winner of a slam singles title in the open era. She retired the following year.
Looking back on her career in 2015, Novotna remembered how she felt the day after her loss to Steffi Graf.
"Even though I was sad and disappointed, I opened the newspaper and my picture with the Duchess of Kent was on the front pages," she told the BBC.
"For a moment, it felt like I was the winner and that was a great feeling. 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.
“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. 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."
Spoken like a true winner.
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