By Deborah Mitchell
When the 1998 Eastbourne and Wimbledon Champion, Jana Novotna, died on Sunday, aged just 49, Eastbourne lost a true friend.
Jana was a great supporter of the Eastbourne event and was certain winning the 1998 singles and doubles titles here were instrumental in her winning the singles and doubles titles at Wimbledon two weeks later.
In 1997, Jana shared the Eastbourne title with Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, when the final was abandoned at 6-5, due to rain. Their re-match in 1998 saw Jana win 6-1, 7-5. Jana also won the doubles title here on four occasions.
I first saw Jana play at Wimbledon in the fourth round, losing 6-4, 6-3 to Steffi Graf. Of course, Steffi was on the verge of greatness, but it was Jana who left an impression on me.
Back then, Jana was at least 40lbs heavier than her fighting weight, but the variety in her game and her spirit were enchanting.
When I worked at the Eastbourne event for the first time, in 1990, it was Jana I wanted to interview. We met after her semi-final defeat to Martina Navratilova.
It was the first time Jana would be featured in a British tennis magazine. I asked what her ultimate career aim would be - to be world No 1 or to win a grand slam? She was surprised I was thinking in those terms, but she said conspiratorially, “If I had one wish in my whole career, it would be Wimbledon.”
I think the best tennis I ever saw her play was against Martina Navratilova in the semi-final at Wimbledon in 1993 - her first victory over the queen of the grass courts.
The outcome of the final, against Graf, was overshadowed by Jana crying on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder. Those images made the front page of all the papers, which amused Jana immensely. It is ironic that the Czech player became famous for losing a tennis match, when, in fact, her very private fight with cancer is more typical of the very private person she was.
She moved back to her home town of Brno in the Czech Republic several years ago and was surrounded by her friends and family when she passed.
The Duchess of Kent assured Jana she would win the Wimbledon title one day. After a failed attempt against Martina Hingis in the 1997 final, Jana clinched victory against another Eastbourne favourite, Nathalie Tauziat, in 1998. Remarkably, the Duchess of Kent issued a statement last week, “Jana Novotna was a brave, courageous, sweet lady, with a wonderful sense of humour. I am very saddened by the news of her death and all my feelings are with her family. Wimbledon will not be the same without her.”
In recent years, Jana had been commentating at Wimbledon for BBC Radio 5 Live. She also mentored WTA players (such as Marion Bartoli and Barbora Krejcikova), attending major tournaments and playing in charity events.
Jana was particularly successful in the Ladies Invitational Doubles at Wimbledon, with a variety of partners, since her retirement in 1999. In 2010, she partnered Martina Navratilova during Martina’s successful battle with breast cancer. Jana drove Martina to her appointments when they were playing in the invitational event at the French Open in Paris and was a tremendous support to her.
Martina said, “Jana was a true friend and an amazing woman. I am gutted beyond words.” When Martina heard the news on Sunday afternoon, she contacted her friend and former doubles partner, Pam (or Pammy, as Jana called her) Shriver, who said, “Jana was as kind as she was athletic. I can’t believe she is gone this soon.”
As well as the Eastbourne event, Jana also supported the Brighton indoor tournament, winning the title in 1993 and 1994 and the doubles in 1992.
Jana’s last Eastbourne appearance was in a legends event during the 2016 tournament. Jana held very fond memories of playing here, “I remember everything actually. It was always the highlight of my year to come here to Eastbourne, to have the best preparation for Wimbledon.
“It took me a long time to win this tournament, but when I did, I followed it up by winning Wimbledon.
“I love everything about it. It’s just a warm, comfortable place and walking distance to the hotel.
“The people are very nice and they can get close to you. That always made the tournament very special.”
2018 will mark 20-years since Jana did the double in Eastbourne and went on to do the same at Wimbledon. I had intended to write an article reflecting on that time for the Herald during tennis week. It is with immense sadness that I am reflecting on losing Jana instead.
Jana was inducted in to the Hall of Fame in 2005 and of all the tributes that have been made this week, I think their statement is the most appropriate, “Jana leaves the legacy of a champion who was a joy to watch on the court and a person who was a privilege to know.”