This time, she was the cool one. For five years she'd been the
symbol of cracking under pressure, the thousand-word picture of
self-destruction and loss, the easy answer to an impossible
assignment. Sum up Wimbledon? Wimbledon is Jana Novotna blowing
a huge lead in the 1993 final and shattering protocol by weeping
on a duchess. But this year they all got into the act--all the
big guns who ever snickered or questioned her toughness or
called her a choker. Steffi Graf cried after winning on Centre
Court for the first time in two years, then gagged against
Natasha Zvereva. No. 2 Lindsay Davenport sobbed after blowing
her best-ever shot at the final. Venus Williams screamed and
wept when a line judge crossed her and Novotna began to take her
apart. They all crumbled. They all cried.
But not Novotna. Not this time. Not when she avenged her loss in
last year's Wimbledon final by demolishing the bewildered No. 1
Martina Hingis in a straight-set semifinal, not when she
polished off Nathalie Tauziat 6-4, 7-6 in a nerve-racking final
to end 12 years of Grand Slam frustration. Not even when that
same duchess of Kent took Novotna by both hands during the
trophy presentation and said, "I'm so proud of you." There was
just one moment, right after Novotna banged the winning forehand
past Tauziat and sank to her knees, saying, "Yes, yes," with the
crowd bellowing and her hands gathering over her trembling lips,
when Novotna came so close. But there were no tears from her
last Saturday. "There was no reason," Novotna, 29, said a day
later. "It was absolute happiness and joy."
Joy? Who'd have thought Novotna could stir feelings like that?
For decades Wimbledon has been the heartbreak Grand Slam, the
castle where Ken Rosewall, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Hana
Mandlikova, Monica Seles and 62 years' worth of British men have
broken their lances and gone home empty. But no one failed as
dramatically at the All England Tennis Club as Novotna did in
squandering that third-set, 4-1 lead over Graf, and her
pilgrimages since have been painful. Each year, on the day
before the tournament began, Novotna would stroll to Centre
Court with Mandlikova, her coach and companion of eight years,
and speak to the cruel grass: Hello. It is nice to be back.
Please be good to me.
And each year for four years, Novotna would play and lose her
matches under this indelible cloud, with every newspaper
praising her grass-court skill and replaying the Graf match, and
every fan pitying her and wondering when she would choke. Last
year she took the first set of the final against Hingis and
lost, and even though Novotna had played then with a strained
abdominal muscle and finished the year at No. 2, the clucking
continued. She was supposed to lose. The more she was asked, the
more she denied it. No, she told Mandlikova after the '93 final,
I didn't choke. Yes, she told anyone who asked, she'd gotten
over that loss right away. Until the instant she won on
Saturday, she even believed it. "I just feel so relieved, so
good," Novotna said. "Before I won, I really didn't feel any
pressure, I felt good about what I had achieved. But now that
I've finally done it, the weight is off. Even if I didn't know
about it, there was a weight on my shoulders."
July 12, 1998
Now, Novotna said, she's ready to win more Slams. Wimbledon does
that. For those who pay it deep homage, the dark-green confines
have the power to recharge a career. Ask Pete Sampras. For
months, the 26-year-old defending Wimbledon champion had been
fending off ever-bolder questions about his motivation and
skills. Having failed to win a major championship since taking
last year's title, Sampras had ceded ground to a hungry field
led by No. 2 Marcelo Rios and had come to London hearing that
his peers no longer deemed him awesome. Richard Krajicek opened
the discussion by saying Sampras was playing like the 10th-best
player on the tour.
But once within the black iron gates, everything changed. Faced
with a draw that offered no foe seeded higher than No. 12 Tim
Henman, Sampras found his perfect tonic--and he guzzled it.
Never had Sampras, who prides himself on his inscrutable
reserve, appeared so in need of a win. He dropped just one set
en route to the final, and as he lifted his level of play, he
also raised his intensity--grunting on ground strokes, arguing
calls, clenching his fists and screaming. In a four-set
semifinal win over Henman, Sampras flung his racket into the
crowd and stared Henman down after a leaping overhead. For most
players that is typical behavior. For Sampras, it is dancing
naked in Piccadilly Circus.
"I feel like I've come through every challenge in my career--the
rivalry with Andre, playing Boris Becker and Stich and Edberg
and Courier and Chang. I didn't have a problem getting motivated
to play those guys because we had a history," Sampras said. "Now
it's a new crew, and I've had to get myself going again. But
when it comes to Wimbledon, I don't care who I'm playing. This
is what it's about."
Yet for all his renewed motivation, Sampras had never rolled
into a Grand Slam event final more frightened. Part of that
stemmed from the fact that there's no player--including
Krajicek, who beat Sampras en route to winning Wimbledon in
1996--whom Sampras fears more on grass than big-serving Croatian
spaceman Goran Ivanisevic. No matter that Sampras carried a 10-2
record in Slam finals or that Ivanisevic had sunk to 25th in the
rankings. Like a distant radio station abruptly coming in loud
and clear, Ivanisevic's game appeared out of thin air at
Wimbledon, as he beat Krajicek, Todd Martin, Jan Siemerink and
Andrei Medvedev and crowed about Croatia's success in the World
Cup. A win for both him and the team? "The whole country will be
drunk for the rest of the year," Ivanisevic said. "Including me."
Twice a loser in Wimbledon finals, Ivanisevic came out firing.
Drilling ace after ace and pounding Sampras's unusually shaky
serve with his backhand, he took the first set, barely lost the
second, then sagged. Sampras took control until, midway in the
fourth, Ivanisevic again pumped up the volume, breaking him with
four brilliant running passes. Sampras all but panicked. "In the
fifth set, there were these thoughts: Oh, my god, if I lose, how
am I going to feel? How am I going to get ready for the U.S.
Open?" Sampras said. "I have an unbelievable fear of losing.
That's what gets me going."
Then Ivanisevic stopped. Sampras, up 3-2, broke him easily in
the sixth game, held and expected to serve out the match.
Instead, Sampras broke him at love and, before he knew it, had
won his fifth Wimbledon and 11th Grand Slam title 6-7, 7-6, 6-4,
Afterward, Sampras sat at courtside, his face in his towel, and
when he looked up, it hit him that he was now standing in
history next to Borg and Laver, men he had worshiped as a kid.
Nothing seemed right. He still felt bad for his opponent, still
wanted to serve it out. In his press conference, Sampras kept
getting asked about history, about being one Grand Slam win away
from tying Roy Emerson's men's record of 12. The questions made
"I felt melancholy about everything," Sampras said later. "I
felt overwhelmed: I've won this thing five times. I never
thought Borg's record would be broken. I'd hear: Borg's five
Wimbledons, and it was just huge to me. You never think of
yourself doing it. As a kid, I was told I was great, but I never
planned on this. It just happened.
"I don't want to talk about me; I just want the respect. I don't
need to walk into a restaurant saying, 'Oh, I'm the greatest
tennis player ever.' It's ironic, but I'm uncomfortable with
what I do, in a way, and with what I achieve."
Sampras has always known that winning majors is about more than
attacking an open court with clever angles. It's about how a
player fills the other spaces in the game--the rain delays, the
time at lesser tournaments, the emptiness after a loss. Novotna
learned this the hard way, but the collapse against Graf and a
series of personal trials (last year, two days before Wimbledon,
her father, Frank, had his foot mangled in a gardening accident
that cost him a toe and months of rehabilitation) pushed her to
lighten up. Once convinced that getting to No. 1 required an
all-consuming intensity, Novotna went to "just being happy on
the court," said Davenport, a former doubles partner. "If we
were losing, I was always like, 'This is terrible,'" Davenport
says. "And she was like, 'Look on the bright side. We're still
in the match.' She really did change."
It's a good lesson for tennis's latest prodigies. In her
quarterfinal with Novotna, Venus Williams stood one service
point from going up 5-2 in the first set before squandering the
chance in a flurry of blown forehands and petulant complaints.
She lost in straight sets. Against Novotna, Hingis raced to a
3-0 lead before flinging her racket into the net and losing
their semifinal 6-4, 6-4. Since winning the Australian Open,
Hingis has lost in the semis of two Slams, and she looks
vulnerable. "To maintain her level at Number 1, she needs to
make another step up--improve herself or come in more or
something," Novotna said. "She has to do that. Because we will
be all over her."
The most dispiriting display last week may have been put on by
16-year-old Serena Williams, who showed great ease on the grass
before retiring with an injury from a third-round match against
Virginia Ruano-Pascual while trailing 7-5, 4-1. Williams had
fallen in the match and called for a trainer, but--never showing
any sign of a limp--she served out and won her last game and
played mixed doubles the next day. In fact, she and her partner,
Max Mirnyi, went on to win the mixed doubles title. For any
player this was a poor showing. For half of a duo who regularly
claim they will be battling it out for No. 1, it was
"The Williams sisters, they don't know what it takes now to be
Number 1 or win a Grand Slam," said Mandlikova, a four-time
Grand Slam winner. "Maybe in three years they will know, and
they'll look back and say, Wow, I was stupid when I said, 'This
time I'm going to win Wimbledon.' They don't know how hard it
is. They're young. They're arrogant. It's a respect they don't
have, and it's not good."
Who would know better? Since 1993, Mandlikova has been watching
Novotna "grow stronger and stronger and stronger," taking that
loss to Graf and building on it, never giving in to what the
world thought of her. "It comes down to this: You have to depend
on yourself, you have to know who you are, how good you are,"
Novotna said. "I don't let those things bother me anymore."
Instead, Novotna pressed on, saving the match of her life for
this Wimbledon, for Hingis. When the time came, Novotna played
flawlessly in their semifinal, stinging Hingis with touch
volleys, unwieldy ground strokes and a plan that never let
Hingis breathe. When the cheering began to die, she walked to
the net and told Hingis she'd paid her back for last year's
final. Later, Novotna was told that Hingis had said something
nice. "For the first time, I heard it from a Number 1 player:
'Jana is a great champion,'" Novotna said. Her face went pink in
But before all that, there was one other order of business. It
came just after Hingis slapped the final point into the net.
Novotna turned to her box, where she saw Mandlikova, who lost in
two Wimbledon finals because she "wanted it too much," and Betty
Stove, who lost her one final here. Novotna knelt on one knee
and laid her right hand flat on the court. She was going to the
final, and this time she was going to win it. Novotna bowed her
head. Thank you, she said to the kind grass. Thank you for being
good to me.
"The Williams sisters, they don't know what it takes now to be
Number 1 or win a Slam," says Mandlikova