Anna vs. Jana: Style vs. Substance

by Gus Griffin






Jana Novotna (left) and Anna Kournikova (right)

Jana Novotna (left) and Anna Kournikova (right)

Recently, a friend and I got into a respectful debate over the accomplishments of former tennis player Anna Kournikova. My primary contention was and is that she largely had no individual tennis accomplishments, or certainly not enough to warrant her lucrative endorsements.

That cannot be said of Jana (pronounced Hana) Novotna, who died recently after a battle with cancer at the age of 49.

Novotna won 24 Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tournaments to include 1 major title.

Kournikova never won any WTA singles’ event.

Even with that, what Novotna is most remembered for is the 1993 Wimbledon finals when she had a 4-1 lead in the 3rd set over the great Steffi Graff, and had game point at 40-30 on her racquet. She would double fault, lose that game and eventually the match in one of the greatest collapses in tennis history.

I remember watching that match and how uncomfortable I felt for her. We all fail but few do so on a world stage as dramatically as she did that day. In sports, not being good enough is difficult but forgivable. The two things that are not forgivable are to quit or choke. Those two transgressions speak to the athlete’s character and mental toughness in the minds of fans and will not be tolerated.

That day, Jana Novotna choked.

She would get back to the Wimbledon final in 1997 only to lose a lead again, this time to Martina Hingis. Then, finally in 1998, she would reach the finals again of Wimbledon and after unspeakable disappointments over the years, would finally get over the hump and win the title.

For me, one of the most enjoyable things about sports is to observe that moment when the team or athlete better known for not being able to win the big one finally gets it done. Be it Ivan Lendl or Andy Murray finally breaking through to win major titles, or the 2016 Chicago Cubs, or Elway’s Denver Broncos. Unlike lottery winners or the rags to riches narratives we love to promote in America, that are often as much about luck than merit, winning in professional sports is never luck.  Also, unlike most of us who may routinely fail in our professions, athletes do so in the fishbowl that is professional sports.  Their every facial expression and inkling of body language is examined and psychoanalyzed by every Dr. Phil wannabe in the world.  In spite of this all, the professional athlete must continue to strive. So, while many will remember Novotna for her failure, she should be remembered for the fact that she got up off the mat and triumphed in the end.

As for Kournikova, I don’t fault her for exploiting her non-tennis marketability. I certainly hope that she lives longer than Novotna. The fact that she is better known than Novotna, in spite of dramatically less tennis accomplishments, says more about what we as a society value than it does either one of them.

So, thank you Jana Novotna for showing the sports world and beyond that one need not be forever defined by failure and how to come back and triumph.  Your public life showed a great deal more courage than any photo spread ever has.


Gus Griffin, for War Room Sports

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply