Jana Novotna

The late Jana Novotna, who died in November, 2017, at the age of 49, after a long battle with cancer, won 24 professional ladies’ tennis singles titles and, in her heyday, was ranked number two in the world. Born in the former Moravian capital, Brno, in the days before the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, Novotna won just one ‘Grand Slam’ ladies’ singles title, at Wimbledon in 1998. However, she will always be fondly remembered for her agonising defeat, from a seemingly unassailable position, in the Wimbledon ladies’ single final in 1993.

Seeded eight, Novotna beat fourth seed Gabriela Sabbatini 6-4, 6-3 in her quarter-final and second seed Martina Navratilova 6-4, 6-4 in her semi-final to set up a final meeting with first seed and defending champion Steffi Graf. Graf won the first set 7-6, 8-6 in a tie-breaker, but Novotna continued to execute her trademark serve-and-volley tactics with a degree of confidence.

Novotna won the second set 6-1, losing just four points on her serve, and took a 4-1 lead in the third. However, in the sixth game, leading 40-30, she served a double fault and, at that point, a nervous realisation may have dawned on her. In any event, she missed a forehand volley and an overhead to gift Graf a service break and never really recovered.

Thereafter Graf took control, winning the next four games and clinching the title 7-6, 1-6, 6-4 with a decisive overhead smash. Visibly distraught after suffering one of the most famous collapses in sporting history, a tearful Novotna was comforted by Duchess of Kent during the ensuing trophy presentation. Thankfully, her words of consolation, ‘I know you will win it one day, don’t worry’, proved prophetic five years later, when Novotna beat Nathalie Tauziat in straight sets.

Henry Wharton

Henry Wharton was described by ‘The Ring’ as a ‘perennial contender’ in a golden era of super middleweight boxing, dominated by the likes of Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and Steve Collins, in the Nineties. Born in Leeds in 1967, Wharton was, at various points in his career, British, European and Commonwealth super middleweight champion. Between 1989 and 1998, he fought 31 professional bouts and retired with a record of 27-3-1, including 20 wins by knockout. All three defeats, all on points, came in world title fights, twice for the World Boxing Council (WBC) super middleweight title and once for the World Boxing Organization (WBO) super middleweight title.

Wharton first attempted to win the WBC title against Nigel Benn at Earls Court Exhibition Centre, London in February, 1994. The ‘Dark Destroyer’ dominated the contest and, although ending up on the canvas at the end of the fifth round, was pushed down by a blow to the back of his head, rather than knocked down; he went on to win by unanimous decision.

The following December, after two further wins, by knockout, Wharton tried again, against undefeated WBO super middleweight champion Chris ‘Simply The Best’ Eubank at the G-Mex Centre in Manchester. Wharton made Eubank work hard in what was his fifteenth title defence but, resdiscovering his best form, the champion comfortably outpointed the Yorkshire man, winning by unanimous decision.

Wharton confirmed his ‘nearly man’ status on his third and final attempt at winning a world title, against WBC super middleweight champion Robin Reid at Nynex Arena, Manchester in May, 1997.

Once again, Wharton went the full, 12-round distance, but fought the last four rounds with a suspected broken nose. Mexican judge Ray Solis controversially scored the fight 114-114, but the other judges scored it 118-111, 117-113 in favour of Reid, handing him a deserved majority decision.

Derek Redmond

Derek Redmond was a hugely talented, but desperately unlucky, athlete, whose career was constantly unterrupted by serious injury, often requiring surgery, which prevented him from achieving the success he might otherwise have enjoyed. A specialist 400-metre runner, Redmond twice broke the British record for that distance, running 44.82 seconds at the Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway in July, 1985 and 44.50 seconds at the IAAF World Championships in Rome, Italy in September, 1987.

The following year, at the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Redmond was forced to withdraw from his heat with an Achilles tendon injury. Redmond gained consolation at the IAAF World Championships in Tokyo, Japan in 1991; alongside compatriots Roger Black, John Regis and Kriss Akabusi, he was part of the Great Britain team that beat the hotly-fancied USA team to the gold medal in the men’s 4 x 400-metre relay.

Despite eight operations in the interim, Redmond arrived at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, injury free. He comfortably won his heat, in 45.03 seconds, and his quarter-final, in 45.02 seconds, and was in confident mood when he lined up for his semi-final. However, down the back straight down, just as he appeared to be making serene progress towards his first Olympic final, he heard a pop and, strides later, felt excrutiating pain in his right hamstring. Redmond grabbed the back of his injured leg and fell to the track, his Olympic dreams in tatters.

 

Nevertheless, determined to finish his race, Redmond waved away medical personnel and, slowly, clambered to his feet. Limping painfully, he was joined at the top of home straight by his father, Jim, who had made his way onto the track and helped him hobble, tearfully, to within a few feet of the finish line. With the race long since over, officially, Redmond crossed the line, under his own steam, to rapturous applause.

Frankie Fredericks

Frank ‘Frankie’ Fredericks was born and raised in what is now the national capital of Namibia, Windhoek, in the days before independence, when it was still the territorial capital of South West Africa, under the control of South Africa. Fredericks later reflected that, while living under apartheid, he ‘never even thought about the [Olympic] Games’, but that did not stop him from becoming the first Namibian, man or woman, to win an Olympic medal.

Indeed, from a nation with no athletics pedigree, Fredericks emerged as one of the finest sprinters in history. He won gold medals in the 200 metres at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany and at the 1999 World Indoor Championships in Maebashi, Japan. In 1996, he set an indoor world record over the distance, 19.95 seconds, which has yet to be beaten.

For all his success elsewhere, though, it was on the biggest stage of all, at the Olympic Games, that Fredericks acquired a rather unfair ‘nearly man’ tag. At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, he won silver medals in both the 100 metres and 200 metres, finishing second to Linford Christie and Michael Marsh, respectively. At the Atlanta Olympics four years later, Fredericks once again attempted the ‘sprint double’, but had to settle for two more silver medals. He could take cold comfort from the fact that the gold medallists in both events, Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson, set new world records in their respective finals.

Reflecting on his performance, Fredericks said, ‘I think the only race I would like to run over is the 100 metres in Atlanta. I think that was the gold medal that got away.’ He had no such complaint about the 200 metres final, in which Johnson clocked 19.32 seconds, a time bettered only by Usain Bolt.