Wimbledon throwback: Graf’s hat-trick, Novotna’s heartbreak

The most prestigious event on the tennis calendar, Wimbledon, was supposed to begin on June 29. But the major, known for its manicured lawns and crisp white attire, has been cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Through the fortnight, we will feature some of the most memorable Wimbledon finals. Today, we recall the 1993 final, when Steffi Graf turned the tables on nervous newbie Jana Novotna…

Steffi Graf finished with a total of seven Wimbledon titles

1993: Steffi Graf beat Jana Novotna 7–6 (6), 1–6, 6–4

History may be written by winners. But the defining image of the 1993 Wimbledon ladies final was of a tearful Jana Novotna being consoled by the Duchess of Kent at the trophy presentation ceremony.

For more than an hour and a half, the 24-year-old from Czech Republic had played some compellingly athletic tennis to throw the two-time defending champion Steffi Graf off keel. Playing her first Wimbledon singles final, however, Novotna had been unable to finish the job.

Giant-killing run

The eighth-seeded Novotna had made it to the final after knocking out Gabriela Sabatini in the quarterfinals and Wimbledon legend Martina Navratilova in the semis. Both in straight sets.

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It looked like Novotna would extend her giant-killing run, when she shrugged off the loss of the first set in a close tie-breaker to win 10 of the next 12 games. Novotna lost only four points on her serve did not face a single break point in the second set, which she won 6-1.

“I felt so good about winning the first set that I kind of sat down,” Graf said later. “My serve kind of fell apart, and everything I did, I did wrong.”

Sterner stuff

Graf seemed shell shocked by Novotna’s confidence in flying to the net. But the German, whose sore foot had been pumped full of injections through the Championships, is made from sterner stuff. Graf, also 24 at the time, had already won 12 singles majors, including four Wimbledon titles, by then.

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Aware of the ebbs and flows of the game, and the imminent arrival of nerves in the closing stages, Graf waited for her moment.

It came in the sixth game of the third set, with Novotna within touching distance of a 5-1 lead in the decider. Serving at 40-30, the Czech threw in a double fault. She then sprayed a forehand volley out of the court and plonked an overhead into the net to hand Graf the break on a platter.

Jana Novotna is comforted by the Duchess of Kent

Fading out quickly

Novotna never really recovered from that wobble. And Graf, wrested control of the match, winning the last five games. She came in to a second serve by Novotna, and finished off the point with an overhead smash to clinch the title.

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“I just couldn’t believe it, really,” said Graf, who threw her hands in the air in celebration. “But you’ve got to play every point to the end, and that’s what I did.”

The 2 hour 14 minute match was then the second longest Wimbledon ladies final and saw Graf clinch her hat-trick of title. It was the German’s fifth Wimbledon title in six years.

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But Graf was understated in her joy. She even gave Novotna a hug at the trophy presentation ceremony and stood by her beaten rival in solidarity.

“I was very happy in the first few seconds after the match,” said the German. “But once I saw her, I knew exactly what was going through her mind.”

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The Duchess of Kent, while presenting the runners-up plate to Novotna, comforted her by saying, “I know you will win it one day, don’t worry.” And the Czech did have her happy ending, five years later, when she beat Nathalie Tauziat in the 1998 final.