Jana Novotna sobbed on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent at Wimbledon 25 years ago. Novotna had held a 4-1, 40-30 lead in the third set of the 1993 final before Steffi Graf stormed back to win the title, and Novotna let her emotions flow freely as she accepted the runner-up plate.
Five years later, when Novotna won Wimbledon in her third final, she became one of the most memorable redemption stories in tennis history.
Novotna is not at the All England Club this year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her triumph; she died in November at 49 after a long battle with ovarian cancer.
Serena Williams, who played Wimbledon for the first time in 1998, the year Novotna won, said Novotna was one of her favorite people to see in the Wimbledon locker room each year.
“I was devastated to hear about that,” Williams said of Novotna’s death. “I actually never knew she was battling with cancer. But, yeah, she’s definitely missed for me because usually after the matches, I’d see her there. But I know that her legacy and legend will live on. She did a lot for tennis. I feel honored that I had a chance to get to know her.”
Novotna’s legacy at Wimbledon lives on not only in memories, but in a player currently ranked 200th in singles. Novotna’s last efforts in tennis were spent coaching Barbora Krejcikova, 22, who also hailed from Brno, Czech Republic, Novotna’s hometown.
Krejcikova, who won three junior Grand Slam doubles titles in 2013 alongside Katerina Siniakova, was looking for help in transitioning to the professional ranks the next year when she stumbled across an article that mentioned that Novotna lived in Omice, a village just outside Brno.
Inspired and emboldened, Krejcikova, still ranked outside the top 300, decided to go to Novotna’s house with her parents. She met the Wimbledon champion in her front yard.
“I went there and I had a letter, and I met her in her garden,” Krejcikova said. “And she was like, ‘Whoa, who are these people?’ And I told her that I was a tennis player and I just turned 18, and maybe you can watch me or help me find out what can be the next level of my tennis.”
To Krejcikova’s considerable surprise, Novotna was immediately intrigued. After the two practiced together, Novotna decided she wanted to travel with Krejcikova as a full-time coach.
“I hadn’t really want her to coach me; I just wanted her help, to tell me some things,” Krejcikova said. “Then she was like: ‘Well, I would like to travel. I would like to help and work with somebody, to help them improve and get better, because I love tennis.’ It was amazing.”
As Krejcikova toiled away in the qualifying draws and various ITF Pro Circuit tournaments, Novotna remained dedicated to her improvement.
Rennae Stubbs, a six-time Grand Slam doubles champion and Novotna’s contemporary, said Novotna asked her to hit with Krejcikova during a tournament in Eastbourne, England. Though many former Grand Slam champions are only interested in coaching if major titles are on the horizon, Stubbs said Novotna’s devotion to the sport made her perfect for coaching, even away from the spotlight.
“It wasn’t a passion to make a No. 1 player; it was a passion to help this girl who came to her,” Stubbs said. “It’s just a passion to make somebody better, and to instill your knowledge in somebody else. Some would be like, ‘Eh, no.’ But if you’re passionate about your sport, and your country, you’re absolutely going to make an effort. And that was Jana, and there’s no question that she’s influenced this young lady.”
Krejcikova said the accolades Novotna had accrued were encouraging.
“It was extra motivation, for sure, when I’ve seen all the trophies and all the pictures in her house,” Krejcikova said.
The pair stopped working together in 2016, as Novotna’s health deteriorated. This year Krejcikova has made a breakthrough in doubles, a discipline in which Novotna won 11 Grand Slam titles.
Krejcikova reunited with Siniakova, her partner from juniors, and they won their first major doubles title together in June at the French Open.
Krejcikova grew emotional as she closed her speech in the trophy ceremony on a more personal note.
“I would like to dedicate this victory to Jana Novotna,” she said, her voice cracking slightly.
After the final, Krejcikova said that the last time she had seen Novotna before she died, Novotna had told her to “go win a Grand Slam.”
“She was special,” said Krejcikova, who is ranked 10th in doubles. “And it was special to be the one who she helped, because she could have helped hundreds of players.”
Though she plays on in her name, Krejcikova is often reluctant to talk about Novotna, with the pain of her death still raw.
At Wimbledon, where third-seeded Krejcikova and Siniakova will play in the quarterfinals Wednesday, Krejcikova recalled a lesson Novotna had taught her about persevering.
“She told me how one time when she went to the final here, she had gotten hurt in the semis,” Krejcikova said. “And she was like: ‘No! I have to take pills and I have to make it!’ She was so focused, and she just wanted to fight. She just went for it.”