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Champion’s Alley: A series looking at the former champions at the WTA Finals. This week, Mark Hodgkinson focuses on 1997 champion Jana Novotna

The tennis public had grown accustomed to seeing Jana Novotna come over all pink-eyed and emotional during a prize-giving ceremony, but this time it was different. This time Novotna was crying because she was happy.

After all the agonies and disappointments that the Czech had experienced in big matches - she had lost three Grand Slam finals, at the 1991 Australian Open and at Wimbledon in 1993 and again in 1997 - here was the victory that changed how she felt about herself. Beating Mary Pierce at Madison Square Garden in New York City, to win the WTA's season-ending tournament, was a life-altering occasion.

No longer could people say that Novotna couldn't deal with her nerves. No longer would Novotna doubt herself. "I have come a long way, there's no question about it. I made it three times to the finals of the Grand Slams, and I was twice close to winning, and after winning this tournament, I have proved to myself that I am a great champion. Even if I don't win another tournament, even if I don't win another match, I just proved to myself that I am the player that I expected to be," said Novotna, who felt as though she was hitting the ball about as sweetly as she had ever done.

"This is one of the greatest moments of my tennis career, there's no question about it. I was really focused, and I really wanted to win this time because I felt like I was playing the best tennis of my life."

And that wasn't Novotna's only title of the week as she also won the doubles tournament with Lindsay Davenport. But it was the singles prize that mattered most. The following summer, Novotna would win her first major, beating Frenchwoman Nathalie Tauziat in the final of the 1998 Wimbledon Championships, and you could trace the origins of that victory all the way back across the Atlantic to the time she beat Pierce in New York City.


Mark Hodgkinson is the author of 'Game, Set and Match: Secret Weapons of the World's Top Tennis Players' (Bloomsbury, May 2015).