I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Jana Novotna’s loss in the 1993 Wimbledon final is the most upset I’ve ever been on account of a sporting event.
But if we’re talking tennis, Novotna is the one. And that includes Monica Seles’s US and French Open finals after the, um, incident.
Yes, it’s not a stretch to say that Novotna’s first two Wimbledon finals were devastating for a certain class of tennis fan, more so even than Pat Cash brandishing that idiotic headband in triumph in 1985.
The American media? They saw it differently.
Athletes from the eastern bloc were, as a rule, either ignored or ridiculed by our fourth estate, at least until a whiff of defection came into focus, making them items of curiosity. But Novotna’s personality and style of play made her different, a story that could be sold even to a public as ignorant as ours.
Here was, first, an overachiever, a doubles specialist who didn’t know her place, threatening even the best in solo match ups. Then something of the opposite, as her natural talent became apparent, without the requisite number of wins, or at least wins in the right places. Before she sailed a bit too close to the sun—Graf on center court in London—and melted into a joke on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent…
I haven’t figured out yet if Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame quip is on target, but I do know that the vast majority of those who fail when given a shot at greatness, at fame, at immortality, whatever you want to call it, would rather pass than face the test again, electing obscurity over the probability of additional humiliation.
The winners in life, in athletics or anything else, are different and Novotna was nothing if not a winner, record be damned. Four years later she found herself approaching the sun yet again, and unlike in 1993, this time facing an inferior athlete and even, arguably, an inferior tennis player. You may look askance, but it is true; if Jana Novotna and Martina Hingis played 100 times on grass—granted, away from the pestilence of cameras and spectators—Novotna would have won at least 80.
Alas, even Wimbledon bows to the dollar (um, pound sterling) and Hingis, for a short period, may have been as strong mentally as any tennis player not named Nadal or Henin. So Novotna fell again, albeit less spectacularly.
I hated her speech after that match. No tears this time, a sunny disposition all around, “hey, I performed my best, Martina was better. Happy to talk more later Bud, and yeah, excited about Cincinnati and the rest coming up this summer, where I can take on all these girls stuck on the baseline.”
It was a hoax, she was a poor actress, and to this observer, she was giving up, saying goodbye to the quest, and joining the rest of us schlubs in mediocrity.
I am 43 years old. For a period of about 10 years (6th grade through college or so) I probably read every word of every Sports Illustrated. (Unlike a friend, I didn’t cancel my subscription after they lionized Mickey Mantle upon his death.)
And while I’m betraying Gary Smith by saying this, the best thing I’ve ever read in that magazine was a short piece by… Tim Layden? SL Price? Someone like that. On Mike Powell, after he failed to dethrone Carl Lewis in their final Olympic long jump competition in… Barcelona? Atlanta? (yes, yes, this is all faux uncertainty on my part, but it’s more romantic this way, no?)
There is no need to recount it all here, but the point is that Powell approached the sun time and again, with abandon, only to fail, and fail, and fail once more (Tokyo? please…I don’t think there are 10 Americans who even know what the world championships are..)… and very quickly it was all over, there were no more chances, the door was closed…
Powell had 50 or 60 years to live, and he was taking his failure to his grave… And after his last jump, while crying and digging into the sand in Barcelanta, he knew it. He knew it all, one of the few souls alive who knew what his last thought on his last day would be… And SL Layden knew it too, and conveyed it to the reader in a way that made you pity Powell more than any man alive.
After the loss to Hingis in 1997, it was clear that Novotna would be taking it to her grave too, and I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. Out of options, I said goodbye to Jana and the rest of them, and left for Europe. Aside from leafing through a copy in an antiseptic waiting room in an antiseptic building in an antiseptic suburb of either Washington DC or New York City, I haven’t read a Sports Illustrated since…
Of course, Novotna won Wimbledon the next year. Fleet Street and its American cousin got their fairy tale, and the back page of every tabloid in every European and American city flashed the same picture of Jana and the Duchess of Kent.
As for me, my boycott was real; I remember seeing a highlight of Venus Williams berating the umpire during her (quarterfinal?) loss to the eventual winner, and I vaguely recall Novotna reveling in her third tete-a-tete with Bud, but that was about it…..