In the early to mid eighties when I was a kid I was obsessed with tennis. The back of my bedroom door was covered with newspaper clippings of two of its biggest stars. One was the unapologetic New Yorker, John McEnroe, arguably the sports most divisive personality and showman, with a serve and volley game rarely matched during his zenith. Today, we throw around words like tortured genius to describe his remarkable career. But then there is that other tortured tennis genius, arguably the most talented player of her generation, who remarkably shared an equal amount of space on my bedroom back door. Her name is Hana Mandlikova.
I somehow vaguely remember seeing her burst onto the scene here in Australia on our television set at home when she held aloft the Toyota Tennis Classic trophy as champion at Kooyong, in Melbourne, in 1979. As the best junior tennis player in the world in the mid 70s, Hana was touted as the next big thing. My dad always said she was a joy to watch, especially when she turned pro in 1978 and began to capitalise upon her aggressive, serve and volley game. As an eighteen-year-old, she was runner-up to Chris Evert in the 1980 US Open, before going on to win her first glam slam event the 1980 Australian Open in Melbourne against Wendy Turnbull 6-0, 7-5. If my memory serves me correct, it was around about this time that my love affair with Hana first began. Equally, Hana’s love for Australia was also born during her formative years as a teenager. “I came here as a 15-year-old girl. I always was very successful here. I loved Australia, loved the people. I just always loved Australia,” Hana said as a guest at the Australian Open earlier this year, on the eve of the Williams sister showdown in the final. “My favorite country, you know. I think it’s also because I was very successful here always, so that’s why.”
In an exciting twist years later in her career, Hana married Sydney restaurateur Jan Sedlak in a civic ceremony in Prague. She became an Australian! But her surprise union, dogged by controversy, especially because of rumours of Hana’s sexuality, caused a storm in some quarters with local players and others believing it was orchestrated to help her disown her allegiance to Czechoslovakia and take up residence in Australia. Hana has always denied her brief marriage was a sham and was extremely proud to be an Australian. “I was hurt. It’s nothing but jealousy, Hana said of the rumours and innuendo. “I’ve always hoped that I could do something for Australian tennis. I know that the Australian public has accepted me.”
While everyone was mesmerised by the gorgeous Chris Evert, I payed attention to the grace and free-flowing spirit of Hana. Mental toughness and injuries aside, she was truly an incredible athlete. She won 27 tour events, which included four coveted Grand Slam championships – 1980 & 1987 Australian Open, 1981 French Open and 1985 US Open. Like her male counterpart, McEnroe, she had a terrific all round game. When she was on fire, she could match and beat the world’s best. She was quick on her feet, power punched with an amazing one-handed backhand and used angles on the court that many of her opponents didn’t believe was possible.
Interestingly, there was also another side to Hana’s game that sometimes embarrassed her. It involved losing tennis games that she was supposed to win, even when she held an invincible lead. This flaw to her game was arguably her achilles’ heel. Often accused of being flaky or lacking concentration, her critics had a field day belittling her talent. On the subject of her mental strength, Hana once said, “Every time I get to the finals, it’s always, ‘So, you improved your mental concentration, then, I lose a match and it’s the same story again.”
So it seemed, Hana was always having to defend herself, especially when she played Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova. Yes, it’s true, Hana didn’t always believe in herself. She would drop her head and occasionally play erratic tennis. I think the Hana of 1985 best sums up things with this statement she made at the US Open, “I work on my head and my game all the time. It’s not concentration. Everybody loses sometime. I’m human and so is everyone. I’m a riskier player than Chris, and it may look like I lose my concentration, but it’s not true.”
Interestingly though, for most of her career, she was unfortunately overshadowed by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. If not for these two greats, I truly believe Hana might have easily won a few more grand slam titles. (She was a semi-finalist or runner-up in no less than 10 Gland Slam events between 1980- 1987.) To add further insult to injury, her critics occasionally labelled her arrogant and ungracious. It is true that her straightforward demeanour and bluntless proved an obstacle for her from time to time. That said, I kind of amusingly recall the Wimbledon semi finals of ’84, where an inspired Chris Evert crushed Hana 6-1, 6-2 to reach the final against Navratilova. After the game, Hana was apparently convinced that Evert was intentionally taking far too long packing her gear at courtside, soaking in the important victory, “to give me one more kick after she beat me,” Mandlikova was quoted saying, and completely walked off centre court without waiting for Evert. For her efforts or lack of, Mandlikova received not only a barrage of criticism from the English media, but did herself no favours with her fellow competitors who thought she had little or no respect.
To her credit, over the years she did her best to work on those issues, especially given her Czech upbringing, where her disarming frankness was part in parcel of a way of life for her. She often said exactly what was on her mind, whether it was during her school years or on the tennis circuit, without a thought that her candor would often bite her back. Mandlikova has admitted through many interviews that she was a spoilt kid and that her arrogance comes from her lack of life experience.
Under the guidance of her Belgium coach Betty Stove, Hana had to learn the hard way that diplomacy was always going to be the best policy when it came to life and tennis. Not only did Stove help calm Hana’s erratic foot-in-mouth problem, she also managed to get Hana to believe in herself, to improve her concentration and cut out much of her erratic shot making. “She helped me through the bad times when I did not believe in myself,” Hana said in early part of 1986 of Betty Stove. “I had to learn percentage tennis, that was my main problem. I learned how to play the right shot at the right time. The unbelieveable shots will always come. I have that in me.”
I am reminded of how unbelievable Hana’s tennis game had developed under Stove, when she dumbfounded her critics and became the first woman since Tracy Austin to beat both Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in the same tournament, when she beat World No.1 Evert 4–6 6–2 6–3 in the semi-final and World No. 2 Navratilova in a mesmerizing 7–6 1–6 7–6 final at the 1985 U.S. Open.
It fair to say that my unashamed admiration for Hana grew to new heights that summer after her grand sweep over two champions in Evert and Navratilova in successive days. For me personally, Hana’s astonishing 1985 US Open triumph ranks alongside Greg LeMond’s incredible comeback at the 1989 Tour de France.
What is interesting about 1985 in women’s tennis was that Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert’s dominance was undisputed. For a better part of ten years between 1975 and leading to the start of the 1985 US Open, Evert or Navratilova had a grip on most of the major championships and held the top two ranking positions in the world between themselves. You could bet “If Martina or I are entered in a tournament, there’s a 95% chance that one of us will win it,” said Evert in the first week of the 1985 US Open. Such was their confidence that Navratilova and Evert for instance had reached the final of the French Open in 1985 without losing a set or even playing a tiebreaker. They were certainly big time players in all the most important tournaments.
Despite her early success as a Grand Slam winner at the Australian and French Open, Hana Mandlikova was desponded by her inability to beat both Evert and Navratilova. But a notable transformation in 1984 under Betty Stove had Hana Mandlikova finally on the rise again. At the Virginia Slims of Oakland, California, Hana stopped Martina Navratilova’s 54-match winning streak to win the tournament. It was one of five tournaments Hana would win that year. Beating Chris Evert though was still a work in progress in ’84 and she would have to wait until February ’85 to end four long years of frustration by finally beating Evert coincidently at Oakland. Importantly, Hana had broken an eleven game losing streak to Evert that began at Wimbledon in 1981. But Chris Evert didn’t seem concerned shrugging it off as a bad day at the office. “We’ve seen this tennis from her before,” said a nonchalant Chris Evert. “She’s not consistent. We’ll see, because, as I say, she hasn’t really done anything.”
To Mandlikova these were fighting words. But with the confidence of an early win against Evert, despite Evert’s unwanted commentary, she took her good form to the US Indoors at Princeton, in the process knocking over Naratilova in the semi-finals in straight sets 7-6, 6-0, to win her second tournament of the year. With two titles now under her belt, the 1985 season was truly shaping up to be a potentially important year for Hana. All she needed to do was maintain her consistency and positive mental approach to tennis. Though things unfortunately didn’t go to plan mid-year, as Hana faltered at the championships bowing out in the quarter-finals at the French Open and the third round at Wimbledon. But it wasn’t time to panic. Hana’s coach Betty Stove still believed that Hana was on the cusp of realising her full potential, as Stove continued to cherry-pick Hana’s schedule that, combined with the groundwork of a vigorous training, would give Hana a perfect springboard at an assault on the US Open.
The 1985 US Open began in blistering speed for Hana, as she cruised through the opening week without too much difficulty. Her rivals in Evert and Navratilova did the same quite convincingly too. The quarter-finals were again routine for the top three seeds, but everyone believed that Evert and Navratilova, who frequently found themselves at the business end of tournaments, would inevitable both meet in the final, even before a ball was hit in the semi-finals. But it appeared that someone forgot to tell that to Mandlikova. She was starting to play well again, she had great physical strength, the right attitude and her technique was sublime throughout the tournament. She truly believed she could beat Evert in her semi-final and Navratilova if given half the chance. Her critics were not so optimistic and who still considered her to be the heiress apparent to Evert and Navratilova.
Nonetheless, September 7th, 1985, was to be the first of two successive days that professional women’s tennis was turned on its head. At first things went according to plan for Evert, who held an 18-3 win record at the time against Hana, by taking the opening set 6-4. But Hana rallied back with her typically aggressive serve and volley game to crush Evert and maybe her spirit by taking out the game 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. Looking back the sixth game of the final set, which saw it go to deuce 12 times before Hana broke Evert’s serve was arguably the most thrilling and decisive game of the match.
Chris Evert in the press conference went on to make excuses for her substandard performance. She allowed Hana enough respect to say she played very well, but when asked if she would beat Navratilova she said, “No, I don’t think so. You know, it was a pretty close match between Hana and me today–and I didn’t even play 70% of what I can play. So I think that Hana’s going to have to play better and cut down on the errors. She still made a few too many errors for Martina.”
Hana would reply to Evert’s analysis in typical Hana fashion by describing her comments as “Very funny.” Los Angeles Times staff writer Mike Penner at the time added in his coverage of the semi-final that Hana’s retort possibly referred to Evert’s comments as being nothing but sour grapes. The only thing she agreed on was that she would have to cut out her unforced error count (Hana made 28 of them in the semi-final). “I need to play an absolutely different game (against Navratilova),” added Mandlikova. “I have to serve better, come in more and take the net away from Martina. It will be a tough match, but I will try my best.”
And try, she did. Like a sprinter blasting out of the blocks, Hana raced to a 5-0 lead in the women’s final after 17 scintillating minutes. “She was just swinging, hitting winners all over the place. It didn’t matter what I did. First serve, second serve, stay back, come in–she just kept hitting winners.” said an absolutely stunned Navratilova before she eventually turned the tables on Hana. Whispers around the court began to circulate that Hana’s reputation for wilting under pressure was only a matter of time as Navratilova won the next five games. But the Hana of 1985 was a little wise and stronger than the Hana of old. She anchored herself on the other side of the net eventually taking out the first set 7-6 in a tiebreaker.
After Hana’s aggressive serve all but failed her in the second set, losing it 6-1 to Navratilova, she again steadied herself for a titanic third set battle that was again extended into another tiebreaker. “I got very nervous in ’85 when I was playing Martina because that was my third US Open final, and I really, really wanted to win it. I remember getting very tight, very nervous,” said Mandlivoka earlier this year as a special guest at the 2017 Australian Open. “I remember still, like, at the tiebreaker in the third set, I was serving, and my hand was going like that (shaking). I hope nobody sees it. But you have to overcome that. Everybody goes through that. If you’re good enough, you can do it.”
And do it, she did, as she raced to a 6-0 lead in the tiebreaker, en route to a 7-2 win. Hana would fall to her knees and roll onto her back, in absolute elation and relief.
The reaction Hana received after her victory at the 1985 US Open was met with wondrous applause and in some quarters disbelief that the unpredictable Mandlikova had achieved the impossible. It was truly her finest hour. Interestingly, in an article written by journalist Malcolm Folley a few years ago, he named Mandlikova’s victory, as one of his most memorable New York moments he had ever witnessed. In a throwaway line he goes on to recall: “I collaborated with Hana on her autobiography four years later (in 1989) – and I swear she was still smiling!”
Fast-forward to Wimbledon in 1986 and Hana had the opportunity to rewrite history by beating Evert and Navratilova again in the finals. She upset Evert in the semi-final, with some claiming it was her way of avenging her lose to Evert in the 1981 Wimbledon final. With phase one of her demolition job complete, of ousting Evert from the tournament, only Navratilova stood in her way in the women’s final. Unfortunately, a determined and lively Navratilova was equal to the task, beating Mandlikova in straight sets 6-7, 3-6. In fact, ever since Hana upset Navratilova in the previous year at Flushing Meadows, Navratilova made it her life’s mission to not lose to Mandlikova again. Between late 1985 to September 1989, both players met 16 times with Navratilova’s win record in that period standing at 15-1.
If it was any sort of consolation for Hana, her single solitary win between 1985 and 1989 against Navratilova came in the 1987 Australian Open. In that final, Mandlikova had to learn all over again how to counter the domineering Navratilova. In short, Hana took advantage of Navratilova’s wayward game and returned serve particularly well to capture her second Australian Open 7-5, 7-6.
In a horrible twist of fate a few months following her Australian Open triumph recurring injuries caught up with Hana sending her career into an untimely decline. The accumulative effects of discovering she was pregnant and pressure of having a successful career also saw Hana have to choose between being a mother or a fulltime tennis player in 1987. (A year earlier Hana vowed “I still plan to give up tennis in time so that I can have children and master the everyday life that in the end awaits even the best tennis players.”) She chose to terminate her pregnancy during her absence from the 1987 Wimbledon championships, and so it seemed too, Hana still had some unfinished tennis business, in particular, her lifelong dream since she was a little girl of winning Wimbledon.
But Hana’s misery continued the following year when her awful second round exit at the 1988 Wimbledon championship ultimately forced her to take a six months leave from tennis. How much her decision not to have a baby the previous year and her recent poor form had to do with her taking a leave of absence from tennis, only Hana can really answer. But what we can surmise is that the strain of career long injuries and the lonely life on the tennis circuit arguably aggravated her decision to step away from tennis. Soon after, late in the year Hana’s marriage faulted truly exasperating her personal struggle. “We thought we could make our marriage work, but tennis is a selfish business.”
Hana’s comeback in 1989 showed some of the fleeting genius she was capable of. But ultimately, she was a shadow of her former self on the tennis court. In short, her mind began to wander and her body wasn’t capable of remaining injury free. Just before the 1990 Wimbledon championships, the 28-year-old announced she was retiring from tennis. I remember vividly mourning the day Hana walked away from tennis for good at least as a player.
She made a sad exit from Wimbledon losing to Ann Henricksson 6-3, 6-3 in the second round of the singles. Publicly she appeared to be tough as nails, but as she walked to the dressing room, behind closed doors she was very emotional. Despite her decision to give it all away, she had no regrets leaving the game. “I am like an orange without any juice,” she said. “The determination is not there, the motivation is not there, and I am too proud to be losing to players I should not lose to. That is why I am walking away.”
However she would later admit of at least one main regret of unfinished business she had with tennis. “My main regret is that I never won Wimbledon, she said, “It was always my dream since childhood.”
That said, she was still though somewhat philosophical about it all, “The other side of the coin is that I am never going to feel nervous or have to practice hard as I did. I am honest with myself. I know that with my style of play and my body I am not capable of winning Grand Slam titles anymore.”
Now 55, Hana Mandlikova is an International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee. She is also a tennis mom with two 14-year-old twins, Elli and Mark, who posses similar styles to their famous mother. As for Hana’s unfulfilled dream of not winning Wimbledon, she was instead able to share in the joy of helping coach Jana Novotna to win the 1998 Wimbledon Championship. For nine years, Hana helped mould the mentally fragile Czech-born Novotna, into an aggressive and decisive player capable of winning the Grand Slam title, Hana herself failed to win.
One of my favourite moments at the end of Novotna’s Wimbledon victory was when after falling to her knees, Novotna raced up into the stands and climbed over the family box, where she fiercely hugged Hana to whom Novotna dedicated her triumph.
Despite sometimes being dubbed the John McEnroe of women’s tennis for her own fair share of bad behaviour, Hana’s semi-brilliant career as player and coach are what sporting dreams are made of. Being able to fulfil her potential to the best of her ability, despite being overshadowed by tennis greats in Evert and Navratilova, is proof enough that this wonderful individual deserves her place among the greats of tennis. Personally, I hate that many commentators still look at her as a underachiever who could have done more. But how do you combat a generational change of hard-hitting new talent and an accumulation of debilitating injuries that Hana faced throughout her career? I think Hana was brave to call it quits when she did at the age of 28. Like she said, in not so many words, there is more to life than just tennis.
Still today, she stands as my favourite female sporting hero!