Martina Navrotilova (born 1956) was ranked number one in female tennis. She has won 17 grand slam titles and broken the record for total victories.
The clouds gathered, the sky darkened, and the summer rain fell on the grass, center court in the suburbs of London, England. This was early in the summer of 1988, late in the fortnight at Wimbledon, the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. In progress: the championship match of the women's competition between Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. Navratilova, 31, was the defending champion. A native of Czechoslovakia who is now an American citizen, she was seeking her seventh straight English crown and ninth there in the past 11 years. On the other side of the net was Graf, 19, a West German who had lost the previous year's title match to Navratilova but seemed on her way to her first victory here.
When the rains came, each woman had won one set of the best-of-three finale. Navratilova had won the first, 7-5, but Graf had rebounded with an impressive 6-2 victory in the second set and had taken a 3-1 lead in the third. At one point, Graf had won nine straight games and had broken Navratilova's service five straight times. To borrow a cliche from another individualist sport, boxing, Graf had Navratilova on the ropes. "No one had treated Navratilova so rudely in years," wrote Paul Attner of the Sporting News. Would Navratilova, queen of this court through most of the 1980s, use the unplanned rest to gather her strength, adjust her strategy, prepare a dramatic comeback, and keep her title? With time on her hands, would Graf dwell on the enormity of her opportunity, lose her momentum, and squander what seemed in reach?
Perhaps it would happen in dreams, in fairy tales, or in movie scripts, but not on the lawn at Wimbledon in 1988. "In truth," wrote Curry Kirkpatrick of Sports Illustrated," it was a reign stoppage." When they returned to the court, Graf quickly won the next three games to take the final set, 6-1, and leave with the silver plate that is presented to the champion by the Duchess of Kent. "It wound up being a sad scene for [Navratilova]," Graf said, "but a special one for me." Admitted Navratilova: "I got blown out. This is definitely the end of a chapter…. Pass the torch, I guess."
Although the defeat at Wimbledon meant the end of a chapter, it certainly didn't close the book on the career of Navratilova, one of the world's most successful, colorful, and controversial athletes of her generation. Top female players in the past have excelled well into their late thirties, and Navratilova intends to join that list. "Retirement is still a ways off," Navratilova wrote in her autobiography, Martina, co-authored by George Vecsey, in 1985. "People say I can play until I'm forty, and I don't see any reason why I can't…. Robert Haas used to claim that with all the work I was doing on myself, I could be winning Wimbledon at the age of forty. People scoffed, but that's really not unreasonable when you look at Billie Jean King, who reached the 1982 and 1983 semifinals at Wimbledon at age thirty-nine and forty. Barring an injury or lack of motivation, I can see myself doing it."
Certainly, she always has shown determination, motivation, and a-willingness to shape her future for herself. Even if she hadn't been a tennis champion, Navratilova would have been an unusual and interesting person for at least two reasons. First, she is a political defector from Czechoslovakia, a communist country of the Soviet Eastern Bloc, who was outspoken about her desire to become a citizen of the United States; and second, she says she is a bisexual and has often discussed the sometimes taboo subject of lesbian love in interviews and in her autobiography.
Even in terms of tennis, she has been unique in that she has shown more willingness than others of her generation to seek technical, physical, and emotional coaching from other persons inside and outside her sport. While Navratilova isn't the first to do such things, some experts feel her dedication to coaching and training has influenced the approach of other tennis players for the next generation. "I'm not saying she's the first to do it," said Mary Carillo, a former player who is now a television commentator, in an interview for Newsmakers." Margaret Court did it and Billie Jean King did it. But when Martina did it, everybody followed her lead. A lot of players now go to sports psychologists. Martina soared so far beyond everybody else, the only thing to do was to follow her lead. She did more than dominate the early 1980s. She set a whole new standard. She changed her diet and her fitness status. She made it scientific. She made it specific."
Navratilova was born on October 18, 1956, in Prague, Czechoslovakia and was raised in the suburb of Revnice by her mother and her stepfather. (Her real father committed suicide after the divorce.) As a lean, small child, Navratilova excelled in many sports, including hockey and skiing. She often competed against boys. "I'm not very psychologically oriented and I have no idea how I was affected by my real father's abandonment, the secrets and the suicide, or my feeling about being a misfit, a skinny little tomboy with short hair," she wrote in her autobiography. "In Czechoslovakia, nobody ever put me down for running around with boys, playing ice hockey and soccer. From what I've been told, people in the States used to think that if girls were good at sports, their sexuality would be affected."
As a teenager, Navratilova's tennis skills allowed her to tour foreign countries, including the United States. She felt stifled in Czechoslovakia and defected at the U.S. Open in 1975, shortly before her 19th birthday. At the time, she said it was strictly a matter of tennis. "Politics had nothing to do with my decision," she said in an Associated Press story. "It was strictly a tennis matter." In Prague, a reporter told her grandfather, who was quoted as replying, "Oh, the little idiot, why did she do that?" The defection was prompted in part, she said, by an incident early in 1975 when she was playing in a tournament at Amelia Island off the coast of Florida. She received a telegram from the officials of the Czech Sports Federation demanding that she return home. "I was in the middle of the tournament," she said. "I had to call upon the U.S. Tennis Association to help get me permission to play. That was when I really decided that I should leave Czechoslovakia."
Life in a capitalist country brought wealth-and problems. "I didn't do it for the money, but it's nice to have," she told the Detroit Free Press more than two years after the defection. She began to buy cars and houses, often owning several of each at the same time. She maintains a home in Fort Worth, Tex., and a townhouse in Aspen, Colo. Among the problems were loneliness and a fondness for the fattening foods sold in fast-food restaurants in the United States. "I miss my family badly," she told Bud Collins of the New York Times Magazine. " I worried for awhile that there would be retaliation against them, but there wasn't much." Her weight grew to 167 pounds shortly after her defection. She is five feet, seven and one-half inches tall. A decade later, after undergoing her physical conditioning program, she was 145 pounds of lean muscle.
Her physique stood in contrast to that of many American female athletes of the past who tried to maintain the-unlikely combination of round, soft, "feminine" curves and the athletic ability that comes with muscle tone and conditioning. Her appearance and personal behavior quickly led to public discussions of her sexual preference. "I never thought there was anything strange about being gay," she wrote in her book. "Even when I thought about it, I never panicked and thought, Oh, I'm strange, I'm weird, what do I do now?"
The book details many of Navratilova's relationships and living arrangements with women and how some soured and ended in bitterness. She tells of her professional relationship with Renee Richards, a female tennis player and coach who at one time was a man but had undergone a sex-change operation. Another one of her professional aides was Nancy Lieberman, a basketball player who Navratilova used for training and motivational purposes. At times, her many coaches and associates didn't get along. "Things got worse at Wimbledon when Renee was not invited to a surprise birthday party for Nancy, planned by some friends of Nancy's," Navratilova wrote in her book. "Renee thought it was Nancy's idea, but that was ridiculous. I knew the party was being planned, but I had other things on my mind." Navratilova's break-up with girlfriend Judy Nelson sparked considerable media attention when Nelson sued for half of Navratilova's earnings. A settlement was eventually reached between the two women.
The political side of her life story came to the fore in the summer of 1986, when she returned for the first time to Czechoslovakia. As an American citizen, she represented the United States in the Federation Cup in Prague. The return was a major media event as soon as she stepped off the plane. "Lights. Shouts. Rudeness. Pushing. Shoving," wrote Frank Deford in Sports Illustrated." How Kafka must have chuckled in his nearby grave as Navratilova beat a retreat." As she played well and won, she became a favorite of the fans, if not of Czech tennis officials. "Everyday the lady from Revnice was winning more hearts," Deford wrote. "Young men dashed on the court to give her roses. The crowds began to acclaim her, and she grew more responsive—first waving shyly, then giving the thumbs-up sign and, last, blowing kisses. Why, it almost seemed as if the Statue of Liberty had gone on tour, turning in her torch for a Yonex racket. Czech officials grew so enraged that on Friday they ordered the umpire not to introduce Navratilova by name. She became 'On my left the woman player from the United States."'
Although her personal life is interesting, there are other persons who are defectors from Czechoslovakia and others who overcame obesity and others who are bisexual. What makes Navratilova a famous person is her ability to play tennis consistently with the best in the world. She holds the racket in her left hand and plays aggressively. "The pattern of attack is a vital factor in Martina's supremacy," Shirley Brasher wrote in Weekend Magazine of Canada." She gives her opponents no time to find their own rhythm, no time to play at a safe speed. Instead, she rushes them and pushes them around the court, hitting out for the lines and blanketing the next with her reach, power and speed."
As the years went by and her victory totals grew, Navratilova became a favorite subject of sports writers who watched her grow from an emotional teenager to a more self-assured adult. "She has evolved in the eyes of many," John Ed Bradley wrote in the Washington Post," into a strong-armed automaton with a mean top spin forehand … and a tough, insensitive attitude that has wiped clean the memory of her emotional loss to Tracy Austin in the 1981 U.S. Open. Has the world forgotten that she wept violently at center court after dropping the third-set tie breaker?" As her career peaked, late in 1986, Peter Alfano wrote in the New York Times: " For the fifth consecutive year, Ms. Navratilova will finish as the No. 1 player in the world in the computer rankings. Her hold is so strong that a rare defeat is celebrated like a holiday on the tour, her victorious opponent treated like a conquering hero. Then come the whispers: Is Martina slowing down?"
Two years later, the whispers were common conversation. Her computer ranking fell to No. 2 and held there for 1988. Going into competition in 1988, she had won 17 Grand Slam titles. (A Grand Slam event is one of the four major tournaments: Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open and the Australian Open.) Only three women had won more: Margaret Court (26), Helen Wills Moody (19), and Chris Evert (18). Prior to 1988, Navratilova had won at least one Grand Slam singles title in seven consecutive years. But the year 1988 was difficult for her with no Grand Slam titles. After being upset by Zina Garrison in the U.S. Open in suburban New York, Navratilova said, "If this year were a fish, I would throw it back."
Navratilova continued to play singles tennis despite constant retirement rumors. In 1992 she won her one hundred and fifty-eighth professional tennis title. With this win, Navratilova broke the record for more tennis titles than any other man or woman. Playing with Jonathan Stark, the pair won the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon in 1995. A second attempt at a mixed doubles title at Wimbledon was squelched by a loss to Lindsay Davenport and Grant Connell in 1996. Reporters continue to ask Navratilova what her plans are and if she will return for another match. Her answer remains that she does not know when she will retire from the professional tennis tour.
Navratilova has devoted some of her time off of the tennis court to writing. Her autobiography Martina chronicles her life from growing up in the former Czechoslovakia to her defection to the United States and subsequent rise to greatness and reveals much about trials and triumphs she has experienced along the way. Her mystery novels The Total Zone and Breaking Point were released in 1994 and 1996
Further Reading on Martina Navratilova
Associated Press, September 8, 1975.
Boston Globe, November 5, 1988.
Chicago Tribune, November 16, 1987.
Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1986; September 8, 1986; September 9, 1986.
Detroit Free Press, February 19, 1975; August 12, 1985; July 6, 1986; June 28, 1987; July 5, 1987.
Los Angeles Times, September 15, 1985; September 22, 1985; July 27, 1986; August 25, 1986; September 7, 1986; September 8, 1986; November 24, 1986.
New York Times, December 7, 1975; August 25, 1986; September 8, 1986; September 10, 1986.
New York Times Magazine, June 19, 1977.
Orlando Sentinel, April 25, 1985.
People, September 22, 1986.
Sport, March, 1976.
Sporting News, July 11, 1988.
Sports Illustrated, February 24, 1975; April 4, 1983; September 19, 1983; May 26, 1986; August 4, 1986; September 12, 1986; July 11, 1988.
Tennis, December, 1974.
Time, July 11, 1983; July 16, 1984.
Washington Post, January 9, 1985; September 8, 1986.
Weekend Magazine of Canada, June, 1979.
Women's Sports, August, 1985.
Women's Sports Fitness, November, 1986.
World Tennis, May, 1975; March, 1983; October, 1983; December, 1983; May, 1985.