One of the tragedies with competitive sport is that you usually don’t remember the second best. This is well-tested in athletics, in which governing bodies keep retrospectively stripping dope-tainted athletes of their medals. Before you can even say Ben, some dude you have never heard of has the bronze medal in an Olympics.
We love a gallant trier in India—some of our best performances in the Olympics have been fourth-place finishes. But it’s rare for a second/third-best to be remembered around the world nearly 25 years later.
When tennis champion Jana Novotna died some days ago at the age of 49, all tributes mentioned her 1993 loss in the final at Wimbledon to Steffi Graf. She led 6-7 6-1 4-1 and at 40-30 in the sixth game of the deciding set, had a service point for a 5-1 lead. Novotna famously double-faulted and disintegrated—a chance you cannot afford to give a player of Graf’s calibre.
Later, during the presentations, she cried on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent in an apparent disregard for royal protocol. Novotna came back to play two more finals and won her last one in 1998—her only singles Grand Slam title—a year before she retired.
The picture of a teary Novotna, with her head buried on royal shoulders, is one of the most iconic images of the tennis world. It’s a picture that, as she herself said, humanizes the sport. It draws attention to the defeated and elevates sympathy for the vanquished, unusual also considering that Novotna was not the kind of player who attracted support across nationalities—like Roger Federer does these days.
Her story is also one of persistence and self-belief, because when she finally won that coveted title at the age of 29, she was then the oldest player to win a “first” singles Grand Slam title. She had, in the meantime, been called a choker and was expected to remain a gracious second-best and never the champion—not against competitors like Graf, Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova and the upcoming Williams sisters.
From the little memory I have of Novotna’s playing days, she was an athletic, fluid serve-and-volleyer from an era gone by. She would dash off from the baseline to the net, kinetic feet hopping constantly. Then, seemingly inches from the net, she would use quick reflexes to pounce on that one loose shot for a closing volley.
The player who rushes the net—not often seen in modern-day power tennis—also becomes vulnerable to a passing shot, making the move risky and unpredictable. It’s the reason players like Novotna were exciting to watch.
She was not my favourite player—Graf has remained eternally so—but was admirable in being one of the last players to uphold the tradition of the serve-and-volley and attacking net play.
“It wouldn’t sound great to say the 1993 final was the one I was most proud of because I lost the match when I was ahead,” Novotna told the BBC in 2015. “But it meant so much for me and maybe it made me a better player, a better person and maybe that match helped me to accomplish a lot more in my career.”
The words echoed the sentiments of another athlete who had the talent and the persistence to “come back” after a nearly decade-long penance for self-discovery. Anthony Ervin, the swimmer who won the 50m men’s freestyle in Sydney Olympics in 2000, gave it all up but returned to competition a decade later and repeated that gold medal feat in Rio 2016.
In the meanwhile, he experimented with drugs, alcohol, speed biking, spirituality, smoking, and plenty of I-don’t-know-where-I-am moments.
A gap of 16 years between medals versus winning at Wimbledon five years after a heartbreaking loss. Oldest individual medal-winner in swimming versus oldest Grand Slam (maiden) singles champ. Half Jew-half black versus Czech underdog. Just cannot bear to compete versus just cannot bear the losses. Chain smoker versus tame choker.
The world of sport gives us everyday lessons on not quitting (or quitting and still having the courage and conviction to try again). It shows that we are never “too old to try”. In a field dictated by physical prowess, it proves that the mind rules above all. If there is any argument in favour of second chances, these two are good examples—can add Goran Ivanisevic to the list as well. Ervin told me last week that opportunity can knock again, if one is ready for it.
He earlier told Men’s Journal, “Young people can bounce back really well but what they don’t necessarily account for is emotional and mental energy. They have a lot more energy to work with but a lot of that time is frivolously used.” An older man understands his body better—and his mind doesn’t work against him, added the article.
This year, remarkably, has been one for the oldies in tennis. Rafael Nadal (31) and Roger Federer (36) are world No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Number three, Grigor Dimitrov, is a decade younger than Federer; fourth-ranked Alexander Zverev is 16 years younger.
Nathan Adrian, who won the bronze behind Ervin in Rio, is seven years younger while silver-medalist Florent Manaudou is nine years younger—equal to a generation in swimming. Manaudou won the gold medal in the previous Olympics in London, when Ervin finished fifth.
In the 1997 final, Novotna lost to Hingis who, at 16, was about 12 years younger. She was not as visibly heartbroken as after her loss to Graf, but one can only imagine what it feels like to lose to someone who was not born when you had started playing. The Duchess apparently consoled Novotna by telling her that she would be third time lucky.
Novotna won the next year, but was she lucky? She played a relatively unfancied Nathalie Tauziat in the final, after most of the other big guns had been defeated in earlier rounds. There is an even lesser contribution of “luck” in Ervin’s gold in 2016—he had started training in 2011 (after quitting the sport in 2003 and not even swimming recreationally in the intervening years) and finished an incredible fifth in the London Olympics of 2012.
You get lucky the moment you stand up again, dust yourself, and get ready to take another shot at whatever it is that’s knocked you down.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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