Jana Novotná, the Czech tennis star who took home 17 Grand Slam championship trophies across the span of her career, died Sunday at the age of 49. The Women's Tennis Association announced the news "with deep sadness" on Monday, saying Novotná died surrounded by family in the Czech Republic after waging "a long battle with cancer."
"Jana was an inspiration both on and off court to anyone who had the opportunity to know her," WTA chief executive Steve Simon said in a statement. "Her star will always shine brightly in the history of the WTA. Our condolences and our thoughts are with Jana's family."
By the end of her career on the court, Novotná had claimed 17 Grand Slam titles — all but one of which were won with a partner in doubles and mixed doubles competition. That one exception came on tennis' most storied stage: the grass courts of the All England Club, where she won the 1998 Wimbledon singles title.
"The victory made her the oldest winner of a first major singles title in history," notes the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which honored her with induction in 2005. Novotná's record was soon overtaken, but her achievement at Wimbledon has not been forgotten.
"She was a true champion in all senses of the word," the club said in a tribute posted on Twitter, "and her 1998 triumph will live long in the memory."
That championship in '98 — which, coincidentally, also included a quarterfinals win against a young Venus Williams — capped something of a redemption for Novotná, who had made the singles final at Wimbledon twice before that without success. The Guardian, writing in 2007, told of one memorable moment that unfolded after her first defeat, when she narrowly failed to pull off an upset against then-world No. 1 Steffi Graf in the 1993 final:
"The shock of her disintegration finally struck Novotná as she collected her runner's-up medal from the Duchess of Kent. 'I wanted to handle myself well,' she said later, 'but when she smiled at me I just let go.' As she wept, Novotna was consoled by the Duchess. 'Don't worry Jana,' she said. 'I know you can do it.' Indeed, she did. Five years later, she was Wimbledon champion. There were a few tears then, too. "
The Czech phenom also won three Olympic medals, again showcasing her abilities both alone and with a partner. In fact, at the Atlanta Olympics, just two years before her Wimbledon run, Novotna took home silver in doubles and bronze in singles.
"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 Hall of Fame said of her playing style. "She was perpetual motion on court — never a dull moment — Novotná expended lots of energy running down every ball and attacking on virtually every point."
That aggressive serve-and-volley style gained her a world No. 1 doubles ranking and a World No. 2 singles ranking at points in her career.
"The tennis world is so sad about the passing of Jana Novotná," her longtime competitor and friend Martina Navratilova said Monday. "I am gutted and beyond words — Jana was a true friend and an amazing woman."