Jana Novotna, A Beloved Women's Tennis Icon, Has Died

by Lauren Holter
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After a battle with cancer, tennis star Jana Novotna died Sunday at the age of 49. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the Czech native's death, writing on its website that she was "known for her brilliant, athletic game." Most notably, Novotna won the 1998 women's singles title at Wimbledon, completing a long, successful tennis career.

"It is with deep sadness that the WTA announces the passing on Sunday, November 19, of Jana Novotna," the WTA's statement said. "After a long battle with cancer, Jana died peacefully, surrounded by her family in her native Czech Republic, aged 49."

In all, Novotna won 17 Grand Slam titles — 12 in doubles, four in mixed doubles, and one in singles. Her drive to win Wimbledon lasted years, as pictures of her being comforted by the Duchess of Kent after finishing as runner-up in the final round in 1993 captured her distress after the loss. The duchess reportedly told her: "I know you will win it one day, don't worry." She came close again in 1997 before finally taking home the trophy the following year.

"Jana was an inspiration both on and off court to anyone who had the opportunity to know her," Steve Simon, WTA CEO, said in the same statement. "Her star will always shine brightly in the history of the WTA. Our condolences and our thoughts are with Jana’s family."

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Novotna went pro in 1987, starting out as a doubles player and eventually shifting to singles, remaining competitive until she retired in 1999. From 1991 to 1998, she ranked in the top 10 for doubles every single year, and did the same for singles with the exception of 1995. On top of her Grand Slam wins, she won the WTA Finals in 1997 and held two silver and one bronze Olympic medals from the 1988 and 1996 games, where she competed for Czechoslovakia.

She was also a member of the Czechoslovakian team that swept the 1988 Fed Cup championship. The Czech Fed Cup team wrote on its Facebook page Monday morning: "Every time she could, she was rooting for us in the audience. We'll miss her, we loved her."

Tennis players also mourned Novotna's death on social media. Former British player Jo Durie wrote on Twitter, "Oh no how terrible sad. All thoughts to her family and friends. So glad Jana won Wimbledon. Such a fighter on court & a wicked sense of humour."

Iveta Benesova, a fellow Czech native and former player, said Novotna "will always be my childhood hero! Leaving too soon, so sad."

"Jana was as kind as she was athletic, as smart as she was competitive. I can’t believe she is gone this soon. Her smile lives forever young," former American player Pam Shriver wrote, adding that she hopes she's playing her favorite sport in heaven.

Barbara Schett, a former Austrian player who played against Novotna, posted a picture of them hugging after a match in the '90s, writing: "What a wonderful person, beautiful soul tennis player and role model we have lost today. I’ll miss you Jana."

After retiring, Novotna still went to Wimbledon as a commentator for the BBC. Russell Fuller, a current BBC tennis correspondent, said not only was she a "wonderful singles and doubles player, but in recent years a charming member of the BBC commentary team."

Novotna was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2005. "Watching Jana Novotná play tennis was a pure adrenaline rush — you didn’t dare take your eye off the gifted, acrobatic athlete for fear you’d miss a shot destined for ESPN’s Top Plays," the website says of her. She will always be remembered as a force on the court.