The queen of Wimbledon at 50: winning hearts instead of titles
From The Times
July 2, 2007
The queen of Wimbledon at 50: winning hearts instead of titles
After a lifetime fighting misconception and prejudice, Martina Navratilova can say what she wants about love, sexuality . . . and tennis
Eastern star rises over Miss Evert
There have been so many trials and tribulations, so many injustices and tyrannies, so many radical life changes and personal reinventions, that it seems natural to regard Martina Navratilova’s life as one of permanent revolution. Each year a new philosophy, each month a new challenge, each day a potential watershed.
Like the day in the summer of 1975, when an 18-year-old Navratilova is walking along the banks of the Berounka River in her home village of Revnice, talking quietly to her stepfather, tears in her eyes, fear battling hope in her heart. Her blossoming tennis career is under threat from the communist-controlled Czechoslovakian tennis association and she is agonising over whether to defect to the United States at the forthcoming US Open.
The dice is cruelly loaded. Defecting might mean she never sees her homeland again, that her family might endure persecution, that she will be alone in a foreign country, fending for herself. Her stepfather advises her to go for it — it might be her last chance — but tells her not to breathe a word to anyone lest the secret police get wind.
A few days later, she is closeted on the top floor of the Immigration and Naturalisation headquarters in Lower Manhattan, signing the papers that will seal one of the most high-profile sporting defections of the Cold War.
Like the day in the autumn of 1975, when Navratilova finally gets a handle on her sexuality, waking up alongside a woman and saying to herself: “OK, I guess I am gay. My life is going to be a lot more complicated. I may lose some sponsors. I may alienate some fans. But I am not going to deny myself, my true nature.” Six years later, she is outed by the Daily News in New York, something that threatens the viability of the fledgeling women’s tour and outrages conservative America.
Like the day in 1981 when a 24-year-old Navratilova decides to end her relationship with Rita Mae Brown, her third serious girlfriend and an author from Charlottesville, Virginia. They argue violently and, as Navratilova tries to speed off in her BMW, Brown reaches for a gun and pulls the trigger.
According to reports, the bullet flies through the headrest of the passenger seat and shatters the windscreen. It is the moment when Navratilova learns that love can be as dangerous as it is intoxicating.
Like the day in 1981 when Navratilova falls in love with Nancy Lieberman, a former basketball player who takes her by the scuff of the neck and cajoles her to transform her training methods. “Nancy pushed me harder than I thought possible,” Navratilova says. “Meeting her changed everything. Until that moment, I had been going through the motions.”
Up until the age of 25, Navratilova had won only two grand-slam tournaments. Over the next nine years, she would win 16 grand-slam singles titles — including nine at Wimbledon — and redefine the nature of sporting professionalism.
And so it goes on, more watersheds than you could shake a racket at, each of which has contributed, in its way, to the fascinating, complex, warm, loving, radical, bright, passionate, charming, menopausal 50-year-old woman that I am sitting opposite on the roof above Wimbledon’s broadcast centre.
And she is beautiful. Rarely has a person looked so different in the flesh as compared with how she appears on television. Her green eyes burst with life-force, her smile radiates humanity, her eyebrows convey all the wit of someone who has faced prejudice in all its guises. One wonders at the caricature of a harsh and forbidding woman who grimly monopolised tennis in the 1980s. How can we have got her so wrong for so long?
Navratilova giggles. “The press have a lot of power over the way you are perceived,” she says. “It is difficult to shake off a negative image. Even the pictures they would pick when I was in my playing days. I mean, I am quite photogenic, but they picked the worst shot on the cover of Sports Illustrated. There is Chris [Evert] smiling as she walks up the court and there is me yelling because there is one bad call, but that is the picture they show. They wanted Chris to be the all-American girl next door and they wanted me to be the muscular lesbian. And you have no control over that.”
Did she resent it? “Yes. Because I am not like that. I remember asking Chris, ‘How come your image is so good and mine is so bad, so hard? How come the fans love you so much? What do you do with your fan mail?’ She just giggled and told me that she chucked her mail in the bin. And there I am, paying a guy a lot of money to answer my fan mail. I am like, ‘What am I doing wrong here? Why don’t they love me the way they love her?’ ” But they love her now.
“It took a while but I got there,” she says. “Now I can say almost anything and get away with it. It’s pretty nice. I feel like I earned it, but it took a long time. I’ve grown as a person and I am definitely more lovable now than 30 years ago — but I was never the ogre they made me out to be.”
Earlier, I had sat alongside Navratilova in the TV commentary box as she called a match for the BBC. The booth is a small affair with an oblong window opening out on to Centre Court from its southeastern corner, level with the third row. It is like peering through a letter-box into an amphitheatre.
Alongside her is Andrew Castle, the former Great Britain Davis Cup player, and Navratilova seems to be enjoying every minute. Half an hour after our interview, she will analyse the day’s play for the BBC’s highlights show.
I make the mistake of playing devil’s advocate, asking whether it is sensible to spend one’s life devoted to something as trivial as hitting a ball over a net. She laughs derisively. “Oh God,” she says. “I had a duty to be the best I could be, to see how far I could get. You will always regret it if you don’t push yourself. That’s the beauty of it. If you don’t push yourself, you will never know where that limit is. Once I realised how good I could become, my question was: ‘How many titles can I win?’ ”
Does she get irritated by those who do not share that philosophy? “I see players like Feliciano López [who beat Tim Henman last week], so talented but so lazy. He is a poser. You know he could be so much better. He’s got the goods, he’s got the talent, but he’s not got the workrate.”
How about Serena Williams? “I would not call Serena lazy exactly, because she is not that. She has been interested in too many other things and has not given tennis the priority. And you cannot underestimate how much the death of her sister has affected her. But I am telling you that it is a crime not to explore your limits.”
But was Navratilova not a perpetrator of that crime? “Yes, until the day I met Nancy.” Love, more even than tennis, has defined Navratilova’s being. It is not difficult to see why she has left a trail of lovers in her wake: she is a passionate, beautiful and vulnerable woman who yearns to love as much as she yearns to be loved.
“I always wanted a partner,” she says. “I never wanted to be alone. I always thought I wanted to live my life with one person for ever and ever. Whenever there is anything great, it is in my nature to want to share it; the bad stuff I can handle alone. If there is an amazing mango, I want to cut it in half and share it. It’s like, ‘I want you to taste it, too.’ If there is a beautiful sunset, I want to share it. Experiencing a sunset on your own can be the loneliest feeling in the world.”
Her relationships have never been anything other than intense experiences that have deeply affected both parties. Her first affair was with an older woman, who enabled Navratilova to understand her sexuality; later came Brown, who taught her to think more deeply about the world around her; then Lieberman, who transformed her attitude to tennis, paving the way to sporting greatness.
Then came Judy Nelson, a former beauty queen, who was married with two children when they met. They spent nine inseparable years together, but when Navratilova upped sticks, Nelson sued for $15 million (about £7.5 million) in palimony. The fact that Navratilova fought the claim angered gay rights campaigners, who believed that homosexual relationships conferred the same obligations as straight ones. Navratilova, however, remains unapologetic.
“It had nothing to do with being gay or straight and everything to do with the feeling that half of what I made should not be going to a person who had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I was the No 1 player in the world,” she says.
“I was the top player before I met her and continued to be after we split up. That’s all it was. I feel the same way about straight couples. If kids are involved, you should make sure you take care of them. But when I made my fortune and she had nothing to do with it, you don’t share half and half.” They eventually settled out of court.
Navratilova has been with her present partner for seven years and professes to be very fulfilled with love and life. Would she like children? “I am too old to have my own biologically. I am going through the menopause,” she says. “But some day, I hope to adopt a kid or two.”
Time has not entirely healed the righteous anger she feels towards those who hated — and still hate — her because of her sexuality. “I grew up in a communist country where they locked up homosexuals,” she says. “I never could understand that. And I did not even know I was gay then. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with loving a human being, which is why I never apologised for it. And to this day it really baffles me why it is people’s business to judge you.”
Highlights of a grand career
1956 Born on October 18 in Prague.
1973 Makes tour debut.
1975 Runner-up at the Australian and French Opens. After a semi-final defeat in the US Open, defects to the United States.
1978 Begins year by winning seven consecutive titles. Wins first grand-slam event at Wimbledon and becomes world No 1.
1979 Wins Wimbledon singles and the doubles with Billie Jean King. Earns more prize-money than any other player.
1982 Having embarked on new fitness regime, wins first French Open title and becomes first woman to pass $1 million in season earnings.
1984 Completes sweep of six consecutive grand-slam titles, from Wimbledon the previous year to 1984 US Open, and sets record of 74 consecutive match wins. Wins more money in the year than any male player and is fourth best-paid athlete in the world, behind three boxers.
1987 Dominance is finally broken with six consecutive tournament losses. Bounces back to win her eighth Wimbledon and the “triple crown” in the US Open: the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles.
1990 Achieves main career ambition, a record ninth singles title at Wimbledon. After surgery on both knees, drops from top two in world rankings for first time since 1982.
1995 Wins nineteenth title at Wimbledon, in the mixed doubles.
2003 Wins only grand-slam title to have eluded her, the Australian Open mixed doubles. Second player after Margaret Court to have won all grand-slam event titles.
2007 Holds 167 singles titles, more than any other player, and 187 doubles titles. Will have “one more try” at breaking King’s record of 20 Wimbledon titles.
–– Words by Will Pavia