Which brings us back to the concept of choking. "When you choke, it shows you're trying hard and you care," says tour veteran Nicole Arendt. "You put yourself on the line, and if it doesn't work, you lose. It's one thing to choke, another to tank. When you tank, you don't care anymore."
Novotna had to learn to care. "Growing up, I never thought that someday I'd be Number 1," she says. "I had no dreams, no goals. I picked up tennis for fun."
She was a gymnast until the day her 6'5", 220-pound father, Frank, picked her up at practice in Brno, her hometown in what was then Czechoslovakia. "My coach said, 'Oh, my god!' " Novotna recalls. " 'You're going to be a big girl. There's no future for you in gymnastics.' " So at the advanced age of eight, Novotna retired from the sport.
Her mother, Liba, suggested tennis. "I liked the sport, but I didn't want to play every day," Novotna says. "But when I did play, I had an incredible desire to win." When she lost, she cried. At 12 she cried so much that Liba told her, "Tennis is very fair: You can win or lose. You cannot have both. So, do one or the other and learn from both, and don't cry if you lose. If I see you cry once more, I'll never let you play again." The tears stopped. "I was still crying," Novotna confides. "It's just that nobody saw me, and gradually I stopped altogether." The duchess of Kent's dry cleaner might demur.
Novotna was a decent junior player but certainly not a phenom who caught the public's imagination. "Perhaps I succeeded because I never had any pressure," she says. Nor did she have a killer instinct. "Steffi was born with it," Novotna says. " Monica Seles, too. I had to be taught to want to win at all costs." Teaching her to kill was Mandlikova, a Czech whose semibrilliant career featured victories in every Grand Slam except Wimbledon.
They met eight years ago at Wimbledon, where Novotna had reached the quarters. At the time, she was 14th in the world and holding. Complacency had settled in. "I could have quit tennis and bought a house back home and been comfortable," Novotna says. "But I had this fire within me. I wanted to do better and needed someone who could make something of that fire. I wasn't lazy, I just needed someone to push."
Mandlikova came to shove. "Jana was too nice for a top player," she says. "She wasn't aggressive or decisive enough." For four years Novotna resisted Mandlikova's efforts to change her. "We had so many disagreements!" says Novotna. "It's only in the last four years that I've stopped fighting and found a happy medium of being very concentrated on the court and enjoying myself off it."
Except for a nine-year-old West Highland terrier named Flippy, the 36-year-old Mandlikova is Novotna's best friend. Both women spend much of the year in the Czech Republic—Novotna in Brno and Mandlikova in Prague and often drive to European tournaments together. "I don't like to fly," Novotna explains. "In planes I feel like I have no control."
Novotna's fear of flying is rivaled only by her fear of Graf, who has won 26 of their 30 matches, including all but one of the last 16. "I left Czechoslovakia for the first time when I was 14," Novotna says. "I got to the tournament, and the only player I'd heard of was Steffi. I played her in the first round and lost in three sets."
She has been losing ever since. With her nemesis sidelined at last year's Wimbledon, all that stood between Novotna and the winner's trophy was Hingis—until the injury that had forced Novotna out of the doubles began causing her pain in the second set of the final. By the third set Novotna was limping slightly, and the nerveless Hingis bounced her around the court.