Death does not always make sense.
Sometimes, understanding wins out against grief. When my father died a few years ago, I remembered he was not always the kindest person to his body and that his life was also filled with hardship. He still lived, though, a pretty fulfilling, reasonably long life. He saw his first of six grandchildren begin college. His marriage lasted more than 50 years.
When I read last week that Jana Novotna, a former Wimbledon champion, had died at age 49, my first thought was, “How is this possible?”
Although I had met Jana just twice when I was working as a tennis reporter, reading about her quiet battle with cancer felt like learning about a few close friends close to my age who also died too young.
For those of us who have worked as reporters, any star who agrees to spend time answering questions with grace and humor is a real gift for a writer.
Jana was a gift to the tennis world in spectacular ways. Her fearless, relentless volleys and taking control of the net was a welcome sight for fans who have grown so used to the power baseline rallies that dominate the game today. Jana wore her emotions on her sleeve, and, after losing one of her three Wimbledon finals, sobbed on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent.
Jana won “only” one major singles title, arguably two if one counts the year-end championships on the professional tennis tour. To be honest, until I read about her death, I had not thought about her a lot in the last few years. Every once in a while I would watch a clip of her playing a major final in the ’90s. “Boy,” I would think, “I miss that gritty style of play. I miss Jana.”
And then I would move on, quickly, to helping my young daughter get ready for her next weekend activity. As most parents know, watching anything for more than a few minutes on television with a young child awake can be a challenge!
I hope my daughter will be like the Jana I saw on an off the court: fearless, smart, confident, modest, tenacious, gifted, sensitive, agile. I wish I had spent a little more time appreciating Jana when she was alive instead of missing her now.