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A Woman With A Reputation Will Jana Novotna be remembered only for wilting under Wimbledon pressure?

June 29, 1998
June 29, 1998

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June 29, 1998

Golf Plus

A Woman With A Reputation Will Jana Novotna be remembered only for wilting under Wimbledon pressure?

Never mind that she's the third-ranked woman tennis player in
the world. Never mind that she has been in the top 10 for six of
the last nine years. Never mind her 20 singles titles, her 68
doubles crowns or the $8.7 million she has racked up in career
earnings. On the strength--or weakness--of three horrendous
Grand Slam matches, Jana Novotna has been forever branded a
choke artist, a contemptuous term for athletes who wilt under
pressure.

This is an article from the June 29, 1998 issue Original Layout

Novotna has worn a choke collar since the 1993 Wimbledon final,
when she was within a point of taking a 5-1 lead over Steffi
Graf in the third set, only to double-fault her way out of
victory. "I didn't expect Jana to choke like that," 1977 champ
Virginia Wade told a BBC audience.

"Jana's the biggest choker I've ever seen!" seconded Novotna's
former doubles partner Gigi Fernandez, who was in the booth with
Wade that day.

It was all too much. During the presentation ceremony, Novotna
rested her head on the duchess of Kent's shoulder and wept.

Two years after swooning and sobbing, "No-No Novotna, the lady
from Choke-oslovakia," as she was called by a San Francisco
sports columnist, squandered an even more commanding lead in the
third round of the French Open. She had six match points for a
6-7, 6-4, 6-0 win over unseeded teenager Chanda Rubin but blew
them all, and then missed three more at 5-4 before losing the
final set 8-6. Novotna only made things worse by telling the
press, "I didn't really feel I had the match under control." At
5-0, 40-0 in the final set! Say what?

Last summer Novotna stood once more at the threshold of a
breakthrough. The scene was again the final at Wimbledon; the
opponent this time was 16-year-old Martina Hingis. Novotna
outhit and outran Hingis and won the first set 6-2. Hingis
squared the match with a 6-3 win in the second before Novotna
broke to a 2-0 lead in the deciding set. Novotna was a point
away from 3-0 when Hingis took over, sweeping the next five
games and winning the set, match and championship 6-3. This time
the culprit seemed more a strained abdominal muscle than a
mental clutch, but the pattern, alas, was all too familiar.

While no one disputes Novotna's artistry--she's the last pure
serve-and-volleyer in the women's game--she may at times be too
smart for her own good. "You can be too intelligent," concedes
her coach, Hana Mandlikova. In situations that call for instinct
and simplicity, Novotna gets gummed up in thinking and
complexity. "In this game the mind is very difficult to
control," says Fernandez. "Jana is not especially gifted in that
area."

Novotna stoutly disagrees. The 1993 Wimbledon debacle, she says,
was strictly a failure of her game plan. Her game is that of a
risk-taker who goes for winners without fail. In that final
Novotna stuck to the same charging-and-chipping strategy that
had upended nine-time champ Martina Navratilova in the semis. "I
wanted to win myself, instead of waiting for Steffi to lose,"
she says. "Unfortunately, she started playing better and I did
not. Does that make me a choker? How many chokers get to the
Wimbledon finals?"

For a player whose game is sometimes ruined by tension, Novotna,
29, looks the picture of placidity while lounging around a
tennis club in East Sussex, England. "I don't think I'm a
choker," she says a bit wearily, "but I've got a label on my
back that says, 'At the most important point of a big match,
Jana will choke.' The label is almost impossible to get rid of.
I could win three straight tournaments, and people would still
say, 'Yes, she's playing well. But remember the Wimbledon final
when she choked?'"

In a sport populated with doughy women, the 5'9", 139-pound
Novotna may be the best-conditioned player on tour. She is also
an overachiever who, despite a fragile forehand, has pushed her
way toward the top through sheer grit. "She's not naturally
gifted," says Mandlikova. "Everything she achieves is through
hard work."

Which brings us back to the concept of choking. "When you choke,
it shows you're trying hard and you care," says tour veteran
Nicole Arendt. "You put yourself on the line, and if it doesn't
work, you lose. It's one thing to choke, another to tank. When
you tank, you don't care anymore."

Novotna had to learn to care. "Growing up, I never thought that
someday I'd be Number 1," she says. "I had no dreams, no goals.
I picked up tennis for fun."

She was a gymnast until the day her 6'5", 220-pound father,
Frank, picked her up at practice in Brno, her hometown in what
was then Czechoslovakia. "My coach said, 'Oh, my god!'" Novotna
recalls. "'You're going to be a big girl. There's no future for
you in gymnastics.'" So at the advanced age of eight, Novotna
retired from the sport.

Her mother, Liba, suggested tennis. "I liked the sport, but I
didn't want to play every day," Novotna says. "But when I did
play, I had an incredible desire to win." When she lost, she
cried. At 12 she cried so much that Liba told her, "Tennis is
very fair: You can win or lose. You cannot have both. So, do one
or the other and learn from both, and don't cry if you lose. If
I see you cry once more, I'll never let you play again." The
tears stopped. "I was still crying," Novotna confides. "It's
just that nobody saw me, and gradually I stopped altogether."
The duchess of Kent's dry cleaner might demur.

Novotna was a decent junior player but certainly not a phenom
who caught the public's imagination. "Perhaps I succeeded
because I never had any pressure," she says. Nor did she have a
killer instinct. "Steffi was born with it," Novotna says.
"Monica Seles, too. I had to be taught to want to win at all
costs." Teaching her to kill was Mandlikova, a Czech whose
semibrilliant career featured victories in every Grand Slam
except Wimbledon.

They met eight years ago at Wimbledon, where Novotna had reached
the quarters. At the time, she was 14th in the world and
holding. Complacency had settled in. "I could have quit tennis
and bought a house back home and been comfortable," Novotna
says. "But I had this fire within me. I wanted to do better and
needed someone who could make something of that fire. I wasn't
lazy, I just needed someone to push."

Mandlikova came to shove. "Jana was too nice for a top player,"
she says. "She wasn't aggressive or decisive enough." For four
years Novotna resisted Mandlikova's efforts to change her. "We
had so many disagreements!" says Novotna. "It's only in the last
four years that I've stopped fighting and found a happy medium
of being very concentrated on the court and enjoying myself off
it."

Except for a nine-year-old West Highland terrier named Flippy,
the 36-year-old Mandlikova is Novotna's best friend. Both women
spend much of the year in the Czech Republic--Novotna in Brno
and Mandlikova in Prague--and often drive to European
tournaments together. "I don't like to fly," Novotna explains.
"In planes I feel like I have no control."

Novotna's fear of flying is rivaled only by her fear of Graf,
who has won 26 of their 30 matches, including all but one of the
last 16. "I left Czechoslovakia for the first time when I was
14," Novotna says. "I got to the tournament, and the only player
I'd heard of was Steffi. I played her in the first round and
lost in three sets."

She has been losing ever since. With her nemesis sidelined at
last year's Wimbledon, all that stood between Novotna and the
winner's trophy was Hingis--until the injury that had forced
Novotna out of the doubles began causing her pain in the second
set of the final. By the third set Novotna was limping slightly,
and the nerveless Hingis bounced her around the court.

This time Novotna did not need a shoulder to cry on. There was
no disgrace in this defeat. She may not have risen to the
occasion, but she hadn't collapsed.

"I still want to win at least one Grand Slam tournament,"
Novotna says. "As long as my body holds up, I'll try."

At last year's awards ceremony Novotna playfully snatched the
women's singles trophy from Hingis and brandished it aloft in
mock celebration. "Jana deserves to win this title," Hingis said.

This year, maybe she will.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY [Jana Novotna in game]
No one disputes the artistry of the last pure serve-and-volleyer
in the women's game.
"I don't think I'm a choker," she says, "but the label is almost
impossible to get rid of."