17-Time Tennis Grand Slam Champion and 3-Time Olympic Medalist Jana Novotna Passes Away at 49

Jana Novotna wins Wimbledon Women Singles Championship in 1998She was on the verge of winning the 1993 Wimbledon Championship, up 6-7, 6-1, 4-1, and 40-30 in the third set, a point away from taking a commanding 5-1 lead over Steffi Graf. Jana Novotna then double faulted, and proceeded to melt down.

Ten minutes later, Graf had won the final set 7-6 and taken her fifth Wimbledon championship. Novotna, who let glory slip through her fingers, could do nothing but cry on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent, as the tennis world cried with her.

The tennis world cried again, as three-time Olympic medalist Jana Novotna died on November 19, 2017. She was only 49, succumbing to cancer.

Novotna’s career was hardly shattered by her dramatic loss in London in 1993. Encouraged by the Duchess of Kent, she came back five years later to win the 1998 Wimbledon singles championship. But when I review her grand slam tennis record, I was amazed at how many championships she won in doubles and mixed doubles: 4 doubles and mixed doubles championships at the Australian Open, 5 doubles championships at the French Open, 5 doubles and mixed doubles championships at Wimbledon, and 4 doubles and mixed doubles championships at the US Open.

In other words, Novotna had a total of 17 grand clam championships, although 16 were in doubles. I thought, wow, that’s a lot of grand slam championships….until I saw the list of tennis players who had more grand slam titles. There were 20 people ahead of her.

What I found interesting is that of the 20 people ahead of her, most had decent balance between singles and doubles championships – people like Margaret Court, the all team leader at 64, with 24 singles championships and 40 doubles championships, or Serena Williams with 23 singles and 16 doubles championships. There were a few like Graf and Chris Evert who basically focused on winning singles championships. But the majority on the list piled up their championships in the doubles arena, like Novotna.

Is there a difference in mentality and skill sets for singles players vs doubles players? According to this blog post from the website Talk Tennis at Tennis Warehouse, there are significant differences between the two.

Successful singles players have powerful first and second serves, love to pound it back and forth from the baseline, and aim for the corners, while successful doubles players are cat-like in front of the net, are skilled at drop shots and lobs, and tend to hit to the middle of the court. The post goes on to describe what it’s like when a person who has a singles mentality plays doubles, and vica versa. Here are a few:

Singles guy playing doubles (with 3 doubles players), singles guy…

  • after his partner serves, he begins immediately retreating to the baseline (where he’s comfy)
  • after his partner returns serve, he begins immediately retreating to the baseline (where he’s comfy)
  • serves rocket first (and second) serves (rather than slowing the speed and getting the first serve in)
  • make no consideration to serve down the middle to capitalize on his netman’s poaching prowess
  • way too many low-percentage shots (when other available for typical doubles player)
  • poor volley skills make him the target of every possible ball until he gets to the baseline

Doubles guy playing singles player, doubles guy…

  • serves second serves like doubles (slower) only to find singles man has a field day crushing them for winners
  • used to covering half of 36′ doubles = 18′ but now has to cover 27′
  • that extra 9′ makes the “alleys” twice as big and he gets passed a ton by the singles player smoking them DTL or CC
  • baseline exchanges are short because singles guy is looping/spinning the ball like mad with nice pace and Doubles guy is not used to that
  • doubles guy can’t seem to get to the net because singles guy’s pinning ’em to the baseline — so who’s gonna win?