LARRY RYAN: Jana Novotna too strong for trolls and small minds

It is a small mercy that Jana Novotna’s pomp predated clickbait. And that the industry around badness — which now rivals the business of controvassy — hadn’t been born.

What murk we’d have faced on Saturday evening, July 3rd, 1993.

Is THIS the crudest taunt Jana Novotna has faced since Wimbledon collapse?

You won’t believe how cruel some tennis fans are being to poor Novotna.

Sad Jana driven off Twitter by vicious trolls.

Thankfully, we hadn’t yet industrialised the scraping of scum off the underside of the internet and its commoditisation for advertising. So there was nobody being underpaid to round up the foulest insults and package them in fake sympathy for consumption.

But Novotna had to put up with plenty all the same.

Within tennis, and to her friends and family, she may have been known for her grace, in style and temperament.

Anytime Richard Williams — father of Venus and Serena — met Jana, his greeting was a mime of her elegant sliced backhand.

“Jana was too nice for a top player, she wasn’t aggressive enough,” coach Hana Mandlikova admitted.

“As kind as she was athletic,” said doubles partner Pam Shriver.

The photo of the Duchess of Kent offering a shoulder to cry on after that defeat by Steffi Graf, when Novotna had led 4-1 and 40-30 in the final set, became iconic for its openness on the part of both women — and may have been the Royals’ best bit of PR in the 20th century.

But Novotna didn’t take herself too seriously either, as she showed when feigning to steal the Venus Rosewater Dish from Martina Hingis in 1997, after she lost again.

To her friends, she was a joker. But from that Saturday afternoon in 1993, to the rest of the world, she was a choker.

A bottler. Mentally weak.

One columnist, whose pomp thankfully predated the hashtag, called her ‘No-No Novotna from Choke-Oslovakia’.

This week our local primary school held a talk about anxiety. Where once schools might have felt duty bound to pile on anxiety on a daily basis, just to keep everyone on their toes, now they are very aware of this spreading scourge.

Could sports media say the same?

Why the bizarre contempt for anybody who is tripped up by a little anxiety at a costly moment, who shows mental fragility?

Is it another side-effect of the wearying machismo of ruthless mentalities and winning machines and warrior codes that we are on such high alert for the bottle job, and that few sportspeople are held in lower regard than the serial ‘bottler’?

Novotna was good humoured about it. She kept the newspapers that ran big with her tearful breakdown.

“It was a very beautiful moment for me and I think for everybody,” she said. “I think it’s good to show your emotions. It can lift you up.”

Of course she lived her life untroubled by small minds in other ways too.

But she hated the word choker. “A very, very ugly word,” she once said.

“It was more about fighting this label on my back for years to come. No matter how well I did, nobody saw that and there was always this negativity and criticism. I struggled with that.”

Sure, hers eventually became a redemption story. Though she was arguably not at her best in 1998 either when she beat Nathalie Tauziat back at centre court and this time the tears were of joy.

Just like she never conquered her fear of flying, maybe she never mastered the mental side completely, though she worked hard on ‘sticking to the process’ before it was ever called that.

But, whatever happened, she wasn’t going to apologise for herself, or contribute to a stigma.

“I think it’s a very natural thing. That’s what sometimes happens because we are humans. We are not robots.”

Her obituaries this week played second fiddle in many quarters to Charles Manson’s.

Badness holding court again.

Instead of a brave woman who charmed the world with her grace and human frailty.

Bielsa to change lives?

A month prior to Marcelo Bielsa’s appointment as manager in 2007, Chile went out of the Copa America with an embarrassing 6-1 defeat to Brazil.

Progress was slow while Bielsa took care of details, such as ensuring too many leaves didn’t fall on the pitches from the trees around the national training centre.

Gradually, he cast off a nation’s conservative style of play, convinced them to play as equals, employing high-tempo, aggressive, creative football with young players.

“The current generation had never seen the national team play that way,” said Armando Silva, co-author of a book on Bielsa. “My theory is that for a lot of people, the appearance of Bielsa signified a change in their mentality towards life, not just towards football.”

His legacy in Chile brought the country’s first two Copa America titles and two World Cup qualifications. His tactics assembled an army of disciples, from Pep Guardiola to Mauricio Pochettino.

This week, Bielsa was suspended with his Lille team in the Ligue 1 relegation zone, having reportedly taken an unauthorised trip to Chile to visit former assistant Luis Bonini, who sadly passed away due to stomach cancer.

An uncompromising sort, it’s hard to see Bielsa back at Lille. Maybe he is on the wane anyway. Or perhaps he has another kick left. If you can think of anywhere at all in need of a footballing revolution. And a change in mentality.

Yellow fever over Super 11s

Unpopular opinion alert: what was so terribly wrong with the Super 11s?

If it bequeaths us nothing more than the yellow ball, the Boston bash will bring succour to more squints than Optrex.

And can there really be anyone who prefers the humdrum 65 — with its virtual guarantee of a point these days — to the pinball madness of the short corner?

A few quibbles: the scoring system is unnecessarily involved and unfair. Why better reward a speculative missile from range that the keeper mislays?

And a word for the keepers. Sure it’s a showcase for their spectaculars — everyone’s Jordan Pickford at Sunderland. But if Anthony Nash’s pens had to be curtailed on health and safety grounds, compelling these lads face a season’s worth of point-blank blasts in half an hour might not be workable without armour.

As a long-time advocate of a hurling package for smaller grounds, I did feel a heavier ball and the inclusion of points would be more authentic. And perhaps if the game was played seriously, blanket defences to prevent goals would interrupt the dynamic.

But Christy Ring himself once argued the safe option of taking your point should be removed, that true gallantry was going for goal.

And on its own merits, if you’d never seen a hurling match before, surely the Fenway festival, obligatory dust-ups included, tickled a few fancies.

But to many it was an obscene betrayal, a Fenway folly, with some valid concerns about elitism and expansionary posturing while the game withers in places at home.

Yet some of those objections seemed confused. On one hand, the Super 11s trip is dismissed as a cynical cash-grab, a vehicle for the GPA to tap up corporate Boston-Irish benefactors.

At the same time, it was slammed as a waste of money better spent in hurling’s weaker counties. It can hardly be both — cash cow and squandermania.

Unless there is a frustrated queue of insurance companies and Massachusetts builders anxious to sponsor development officers for Longford.

PaperTalk: Can Nemo dethrone Crokes and what can be done with internet trolls?


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