On Sunday, in the middle of the day, I received a text message from my longtime doubles partner, Martina Navratilova, to give her a call. It was an unusual request, and I felt it was not going to be good news when I called Martina back.
Martina, the elder stateswoman of a talented group of players born in the Czech Republic, sounded devastated: “Jana Novotna died earlier today. … She was just 49,” she told me.
I asked Martina a few other questions, but the conversation was one of our shortest and one of our saddest.
Jana chose to live with her cancer journey in a most private way. Only her closest family and friends knew her life was going to end too soon.
I did not know Jana was so ill. My immediate reaction to counter my sadness was to recall my many fond memories of her from the first time we played in a singles final, in Brisbane on grass about 30 years ago, to our gold-medal marathon doubles final in Seoul in 1988.
We shared the BBC commentary booth together about 15 years ago and together contributed to a few charity events, from my own in Baltimore, to Chris Evert’s in Florida, to various WTA charitable events at tour stops.
I recall the last time I was on the court with her, which was a Wimbledon doubles invitational a few years ago. I spent some more time with her at a few other WTA reunion events in recent years as well.
She was one of the few outside my family to call me “Pammy.” Jana had a smile that took over her seriously competitive face easily. Her sense of humor was as underrated as her slice backhand.
For those who follow pro tennis, Jana will be best remembered for one of the most famous collapses in a major final, when she led Steffi Graf 4-1 (and was serving) in the 1993 Wimbledon championship. Jana lost that match, and afterward she broke down in tears on Centre Court, crying in grief on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent. It was a devastating moment for Jana, who had squandered the biggest moment of her career, but the setback only made for a better story when she finally broke through.
Five years later, Jana won Wimbledon. I don’t recall a more popular and ecstatic locker room. We all felt she handled the collapse against Graf as well as any human could. She deserved a Wimbledon singles title. She got one. She also won 12 major doubles titles.
Having lost my only older sibling to cancer 20 years ago as well as my husband (18 years ago) and dad (nearly 12 years ago) to the same disease, I can sympathize with the intense pain Jana’s family and closest friends are feeling right now. My heart and my mind still can’t believe she died this soon.
The WTA family is in shock, as Jana lived her past months close to her family in the Czech Republic, choosing her private pathway over a more public one, where we who knew her well could have reached out for support or a goodbye.
We can all salute her brave journey and say, “Thank you, thank you, Jana Novotna, for all you taught us and did for us.”
God bless you, friend. I will miss you.