Tennis players are all crazy. At least that’s the way Jana Novotna puts it.
Sat in the middle of a Roberto Cavalli store where she was invited to shop on a visit to Etihad Towers’ Avenue in Abu Dhabi, the modestly-clad Novotna was clearly more interested in talking tennis than trying on clothes.
At 46, Novotna finds herself fascinated by the sport even more than when she was a player herself. The tall Czech won the Wimbledon singles trophy in 1998 and owns 16 more grand slam titles in doubles and mixed. But it is the 1993 final she lost to Steffi Graf at SW19 that millions of people remember her for.
Novotna had a game point to go up 6-7, 6-1, 5-1 against Graf. Then came one of the most famous collapses in sport as Novotna got broken and lost the match 6-4 in the third. The images of Katharine the Duchess of Kent consoling her in the trophy ceremony remain iconic to this day.
But you’d be surprised to know that Novotna views that Saturday as anything but painful.
“I think about it all the time. I love it,” Novotna told Sport360°.
“It’s really funny because a lot of people think that losing to Steffi Graf in 1993 was a bad experience. For me, it was the best thing that happened to my life. The next day, because of everything that happened during the ceremony and during the match, I opened the newspapers and I was on the front page of every newspaper, I felt like a winner.
“And it really gave me so much publicity. Now it’s something that people remember more than me actually winning Wimbledon.”
Novotna recalls how dominant Graf was at the time and how the German would steamroll her opponents at every major.
“I remember those days when we played at the French Open, when one girl played her, the question wasn’t about ‘what was the score?’ it was ‘how many minutes?’ And she said ‘28, I did it’ (with a fist pump),” laughed Novotna.
“We weren’t asking about scores, we were asking about minutes and it’s the semi-final of the French Open.”
Much of Novotna’s rhetoric is a mix of honesty and sarcasm. A hint of humour surfaces when she broaches the topic of “super-coaches”. Not many people know that Novotna herself is one of those “super-coaches” – an ex-champion who has returned to today’s game to guide the current generation.
She very briefly worked with 2013 Wimbledon winner Marion Bartoli and now coaches 20-year-old Czech Barbora Krejcikova, ranked No153 in the world.
She finds working with top players quite challenging because “they all have their own set up. There’s always like five people, and then there is a tennis coach.”
Few women have re-entered the tennis scene in a coaching capacity recently, including Martina Navratilova (helping Agnieszka Radwanska), Lindsay Davenport (working with Madison Keys) and Amelie Mauresmo (coaching Andy Murray).
Of the former men’s champions, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Michael Chang, Goran Ivanisevic and Sergi Bruguera and many more are coaching. Novotna tries to explain why more women aren’t following suit.
“They have families, they’re too selfish, or they don’t know how to coach,” were some of her guesses.
“Not every player knows how to coach. We’re so used to ‘oh I’ll show you two times. What you don’t get it?’ It requires a lot of patience. Tennis players are selfish, I don’t mean it in a bad way. As a player you have to be selfish, you have to want everything for yourself, because on the court you are like this. So it’s not easy for them to make the change and be more giving, patient.
“It’s not about you, it’s about somebody else. You aren’t the star, you take the backseat and you wait. That’s my biggest problem, I’m waiting for something all the time. I used to think, ‘I play, I practice, I go.’ And now I find myself sitting and waiting all the time.”
Novotna finds the Maursemo-Murray partnership as a “natural” fit but questions the reasoning behind some of the other high-profile linkups.
“I always said that Andy should be coached by a woman because his mother was such a big part of his tennis life,” she says.
“But I don’t see too many guys doing it in the future because guys are different. Women are sometimes too complicated, we tend to over-analyse, right?
“I think the guys (hired ex-pros) for different reasons. They just wanted to have this extra publicity, extra motivation, because how can Boris Becker improve Novak Djokovic? He is already perfect.”
On the women’s tour, Novotna sees Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova in a league of their own and doesn’t think Simona Halep can enter that league.
“Halep is going to be always good, always consistent and she may win grand slams but she’s going to be one of those players – I don’t mean it in a bad way – nobody will remember. A good player, solid, feisty, consistent but it’s not ‘wow’,” says Novotna.
“When you think about it, there are always very few players that we actually remember. And there have been so many good players.
“You have to be wow in every way and Serena is in that category, so is Maria Sharapova even though she didn’t win that many slams (five). But wherever she shows up, it’s a headline, it’s success, it’s professionalism. To combine that and put it together and still keep that focus… not many players can do that.
“Look what happened to Eugenie Bouchard? She had an unbelievable year, they put her on the magazines, they changed the hair and she cannot handle it. But Sharapova she can do a photoshoot, she can walk in high heels, she can pose in a Porsche then she goes on the court and she’s like this (Novotna makes a focused face), and never looks back. Amazing. Unique.”
Observing the circuit now through a coach’s lens, there are many more things that intrigue Novotna.
“You remember Chris Evert, she walked in with those two racquets she’s like ‘yeah I think it’s well-strung’. Now it’s like perfection. You think about water and somebody is there to give you the water. You make a gesture, there’s someone there to stretch your shoulder,” she marvels.
“It’s incredible how much it has changed. So it’s really funny to compare the two eras and say who was the best player. Well maybe if Martina Navratilova had all of that, she would have been even better, or Chris Evert. If John McEnroe had Hawk-Eye maybe he would have won many more matches.
“I love tennis. It’s a very unique sport and the tennis players are all crazy which makes it interesting. It’s so individual and you have to be in your own world to be able to do all of that.”
Volleys with Novotna
On moving back to the Czech Republic post-retirement
“I really missed being at home and Florida was a little bit boring. Nice weather every day but nothing to do. Nice car, but nowhere to go. So I really needed to go back to Czech. And I enjoy it very much.”
On Czech up-and-comer Karolina Pliskova
“I think she’s kind of a cool girl. She doesn’t say very much, not very emotional, sometimes you have no idea what she’s thinking, but it’s not bad for tennis. Boy and when she hits the ball, it’s lethal.”
On Krejcikova, the player she is coaching
“She’s still finishing school, which is kind of holding her back. She needs to graduate before she can fully play tennis. And once this is done at the end of May, I’m expecting her to progress even faster. She’s cut the ranking in half, so she made good progress.”
On the different approaches of super-coaches
“Are you a super-coach that goes to certain tournaments, you show up, you give the player the extra motivation to be like you or something, or are you doing the everyday work? Martina Navratilova just goes and spends a few weeks with Radwanska hoping she will give her the extra motivation to do well. I work every day. I’m on the court.”
On Serena’s claim on the title of “greatest of all-time”
“15 years ago you would think Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, those are the best of all-time. But suddenly Serena emerged and looks unstoppable. It’s very hard. It’s going to come down to titles, how many you have.”
Serena Williams won the clash between two of the hottest players on the WTA Tour with a straight-set victory over Swiss Timea Bacsinszky at Indian Wells on Wednesday.
World number one Williams extended her match win streak to 15 by beating the red-hot Bacsinszky 7-5, 6-3 on the Tennis Garden stadium court.
Bacsinszky's fourth round win over Elina Svitolina was her 15th consecutive match win, including Fed Cup play.
Williams now faces third seeded Simona Halep after the Romanian beat Spain's Carla Suarez in three sets.
Williams got past her in one hour and 25 minutes. She belted seven aces but also had four double faults and said she needs to step up her game.
Halep came storming back from an opening set loss to beat Suarez 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 and advance to her second straight Indian Wells semi-final.
Halep has gone three sets in three of her four matches in Indian Wells. But she says she doesn't mind the extra time on the court because it allows her to perfect her game.
Halep hit two aces, committed three double faults and broke her opponent eight times in the close to two-hour match.
Williams leads Halep in their head-to-head series four game to one but the loss wasn't that long ago. Halep beat her 6-0, 6-2 at the 2014 WTA Tour finals in Singapore.
World No1 Novak Djokovic took another step towards defending his Indian Wells title with a hard-fought 6-4, 7-6 (7/5) win over American John Isner on Wednesday.
Djokovic has struggled in the past with the 6-foot-10 (2.08m) Isner's bombing serve on the hardcourts of the California desert.
But the reigning Australian Open champ got the best of his opponent in the key tiebreaker.
Djokovic booked a quarter-final clash with 35th-ranked Bernard Tomic of Australia.
Tomic eliminated fellow Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.
Djokovic now has a 6-2 advantage in career meetings, with nine of the sets going into tiebreakers. Isner has won six of those, so Djokovic felt fortunate to squeak through this time.
Djokovic hammered seven aces and saved both break points he faced in the one hour, 31 minute match.
Four-time Indian Wells winner Roger Federer needed just 69 minutes to oust American Jack Sock 6-3, 6-2.
In the quarter-finals, the Swiss second seed will face ninth-seeded Czech Tomas Berdych, a 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 winner over compatriot Lukas Rosol.
Federer and Berdych have met 18 times with the Swiss holding a 12-6 lead.
World number three Rafael Nadal rolled over France's Gilles Simon 6-2, 6-4.
The left-handed Spaniard hammered four aces and broke Simon five times to set up a meeting with hard-hitting Milos Raonic of Canada.
Raonic hammered a 241 kmph (150 mph) serve en route to a 6-3, 6-2 straight set win over Tommy Robredo of Spain.
Raonic is in his second straight quarter-final but he will have his work cut out for him because he has never beaten Nadal in five career meetings.
Fourth seeded Andy Murray, trying to rebound from a subpar 2014, defeated Adrian Mannarino 6-3, 6-3 in the fourth round.
Murray next faces Spain's Feliciano Lopez who upset fifth seed Kei Nishikori of Japan 6-4, 7-6 (7/2).