Jana Novotna, who won the hearts of the tennis world when she sobbed on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent after a heartbreaking loss in the Wimbledon final, has died at the age of 49.
The Women’s Tennis Association announced Novotna’s death on Monday, saying she died on Sunday in her native Czech Republic following a long battle with cancer.
Novotna died “peacefully, surrounded by her family,” the WTA said.
Martina Navratilova, the tennis great who was also born in what was then Czechoslovakia, tweeted: “The tennis world is so sad about the passing of Jana Novotna. I am gutted and beyond words. Jana was a true friend and an amazing woman.”
Novotna won her only Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon in 1998, eventually triumphing after two losses in the final at the All England Lawn Tennis Club in 1993 and 1997. She also lost in the 1991 Australian Open final.
While she finally captured the Grand Slam singles title she longed for in 1998, she had already won over the Wimbledon crowd five years earlier, after wasting a big lead in the decisive set in a tough three-set loss to Steffi Graf. Unable to hide her disappointment, Novotna cried on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent at the prizegiving ceremony and was gently comforted by the royal, who told her: “I know you will win it one day, don’t worry.”
Novotna had her moment five years later when she beat Nathalie Tauziat in straight sets to win Wimbledon. At the time, she was the oldest first-time winner of a Grand Slam singles title at age 29.
There were tears again from Novotna, this time of joy, and the Duchess of Kent was present to congratulate her.
“She was a true champion in all senses of the word, and her 1998 triumph will live long in the memory,” Wimbledon organisers the All England Club said in tribute to Novotna. “The thoughts of all those at Wimbledon are with her family and friends.”
Fellow Czech and four-time Grand Slam champion Hana Mandlikova, who coached Novotna for her Wimbledon win, said: “It’s hard to find words. Jana was a great girl and I’m happy that she won Wimbledon after all. It’s so sad when someone so young dies.”
During a 14-year professional career, Novotna won 24 singles titles and reached a career-high No 2 in the singles rankings in 1997. She was a prolific and top-ranked doubles player, collecting 16 slam titles in doubles and mixed doubles.
She won three Olympic medals – silver in the doubles at the 1988 Seoul Games and silver again in the doubles and bronze in the singles in Atlanta in 1996. She also won the Fed Cup with her country in 1988. Novotna was inducted into the tennis Hall of Fame in 2005.
Even after retiring in 1999, Novotna was desperate to stay involved in tennis and became a commentator and coach.
“I’m dependent on tennis,” she said in an interview two years ago. “A day without it would be terrible.”
Members of the current Czech Fed Cup team said Novotna “supported us in the stands any time she could be there. We’ll miss her.”
“Jana was an inspiration both on and off court to anyone who had the opportunity to know her,” WTA chief executive Steve Simon said. “Her star will always shine brightly in the history of the WTA.”