Never mind that she's the third-ranked woman tennis player in the world. Never mind that she has been in the top 10 for six of the last nine years. Never mind her 20 singles tides, her 68 doubles crowns or the $8.7 million she has racked up in career earnings. On the strength—or weakness—of three horrendous Grand Slam matches, Jana Novotna has been forever branded a choke artist, a contemptuous term for athletes who wilt under pressure.
Novotna has worn a choke collar since the 1993 Wimbledon final, when she was within a point of taking a 5-1 lead over Steffi Graf in the third set, only to double-fault her way out of victory. "I didn't expect Jana to choke like that," 1977 champ Virginia Wade told a BBC audience.
"Jana's the biggest choker I've ever seen!" seconded Novotna's former doubles partner Gigi Fernandez, who was in the booth with Wade that day.
It was all too much. During the presentation ceremony, Novotna rested her head on the duchess of Kent's shoulder and wept.
Two years after swooning and sobbing, "No-No Novotna, the lady from Chokeoslovakia," as she was called by a San Francisco sports columnist, squandered an even more commanding lead in the third round of the French Open. She had six match points for a 6-7, 6-4, 6-0 win over unseeded teenager Chanda Rubin but blew them all, and then missed three more at 5-4 before losing the final set 8-6. Novotna only made things worse by telling the press, "I didn't really feel I had the match under control." At 5-0, 40-0 in the final set! Say what?
Last summer Novotna stood once more at the threshold of a breakthrough. The scene was again the final at Wimbledon; the opponent this time was 16-year-old Martina Hingis. Novotna outhit and outran Hingis and won the first set 6-2. Hingis squared the match with a 6-3 win in the second before Novotna broke to a 2-0 lead in the deciding set. Novotna was a point away from 3-0 when Hingis took over, sweeping the next five games and winning the set, match and championship 6-3. This time the culprit seemed more a strained abdominal muscle than a mental clutch, but the pattern, alas, was all too familiar.
While no one disputes Novotna's artistry-she's the last pure serve-and-volleyer in the women's game—she may at times be too smart for her own good. "You can be too intelligent," concedes her coach, Hana Mandlikova. In situations that call for instinct and simplicity, Novotna gets gummed up in thinking and complexity. "In this game the mind is very difficult to control," says Fernandez. "Jana is not especially gifted in that area."
Novotna stoutly disagrees. The 1993 Wimbledon debacle, she says, was strictly a failure of her game plan. Her game is that of a risk-taker who goes for winners without fail. In that final Novotna stuck to the same charging-and-chipping strategy that had upended nine-time champ Martina Navratilova in the semis. "I wanted to win myself, instead of waiting for Steffi to lose," she says. "Unfortunately, she started playing better and I did not. Does that make me a choker? How many chokers get to the Wimbledon finals?"
For a player whose game is sometimes ruined by tension, Novotna, 29, looks the picture of placidity while lounging around a tennis club in East Sussex, England. "I don't think I'm a choker," she says a bit wearily, "but I've got a label on my back that says, 'At the most important point of a big match, Jana will choke.' The label is almost impossible to get rid of. I could win three straight tournaments, and people would still say, 'Yes, she's playing well. But remember the Wimbledon final when she choked?' "
In a sport populated with doughy women, the 5'9", 139-pound Novotna may be the best-conditioned player on tour. She is also an overachiever who, despite a fragile forehand. has pushed her way toward the top through sheer grit. "She's not naturally gifted," says Mandlikova. "Everything she achieves is through hard work."