Artist With A Ball: Navratilova Takes Life On The Rise -
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Artist With A Ball: Navratilova Takes Life On The Rise

By Kent Oswald

4/4/2008 6:33:00 PM

Come up with the right offer and Martina Navratilova will be your coach.

The woman who claimed the World No. 1 rank for 156 consecutive weeks and 331 weeks overall, won 18 Grand Slam singles titles (including six in a row from 1983-84), 31 Grand Slam doubles titles and 10 mixed doubles championships (the first in 1974, the most recent in 1996) offers coaching as one of her many passions.

"I love coaching; love sharing what I know," Navratilova told Tennis Week. "I will talk to amateurs on the next court: ‘hey, try it this way.’ [And] If the right situation comes along I’d certainly be interested in doing it."

Not that she is kicking back, channel surfing and pining for your call

She is just back from an exhibition in Japan, where she played Steffi Graf in singles, then taped an Oprah segment in Chicago and finished up a short stint on New Jersey’s jury duty before getting ready for another road trip to Aspen to get in some Spring skiing. And, as World TeamTennis is finishing up its draft for the upcoming 33rd season, she’s doing some media in preparation for her 19th season and fourth as a Boston Lobster (1978, 2005-06, 2008), which begins play across the States July 3 and culminates in the Championships weekend, July 24-27, in Roseville, Calif. Soon enough, she will be off to Paris, where last year the Roland Garros Museum displayed art she created in conjunction with Slovak artist Juro Kralik, their work was on display at the Aussie Open earlier this year and scheduled for New Orleans next month. This year she will be covering the tournament as part of the Tennis Channel’s commentary team.

Serve and volley wasn’t just a tennis tactic. It is the way she lives her life and, at age 51, the girl from Prague continues as a determined American and Czech — she recently reclaimed her citizenship — woman who attacks life with passion and focus.

"I do not know how to put my feet up," Navratilova says. "Skiing and playing hockey on the same day (she recently played seven hockey games in one weekend), that’s my idea of heaven."

Although she claims to be seeking balance in life, the obvious pleasure she takes in her various pursuits leave unclear what is work and what is play for her. Consider her World TeamTennis efforts. She is an all-time, all-league All Star, having been on five WTT champion teams, the (Los Angeles Strings 1981, Atlanta Thunder 1991, 1992, New Jersey Stars 1994, 1995) and claimed four Female MVP awards (1978, 1991-1993) also places her atop the WTT record books.

She is the senior member of WTT this season (a couple of years older than fellow Hall of Famer John McEnroe, who will also play WTT) and 36 years older than the WTT's youngest player, 15-year-old Tammy Hendler. Her 19-season career, a member of nine teams, also gained her multiple scoring titles; women’s singles scoring leader 1977, 1978, 1981, 1992, 1993; women’s doubles scoring leader in 1977 (w/Greer Stevens), 1978 and 1981 (Terry Holladay); and mixed doubles scoring leader 1981 (w/Vijay Amitraj).

Of them all, she recalls her the 1978 Lobster team as the favorite. "We just had a blast … I just learned so much. Roy Emerson was the coach and he really was the coach (having the team practice three to four hours a day). I won Wimbledon in 1978 in no small part because of Roy Emerson helping me out." And, she adds, by watching and studying teammate Tony Roche’s backhand.

It would be reasonable to think there wouldn’t be anything more to prove, but ask her why she plays and receive the blunt, "because I can." She is proud to say she can do it well enough to still feel productive and, while she may not have anything left to prove to others, it doesn’t mean she is done: "I’m still learning." Technology has changed the racquets, balls and techniques so much she suggests that to herself she is still a student in something as simple as how to hit the ball.

Not that, if you were to become her student, she would expect you to hit the ball like she does, or at least, did. Times have changed and "the balance [between power and finesse] has been lost." Navratilova doesn’t believe that even the best serve and volleyer — and she acknowledges that some believe that is her — could play serve and volley tennis today.

Strings and racquets, spin and power, have changed the game. "Now you don’t have to hit a passing shot," she says. The receiver just has to dip the ball to the approaching player’s feet, a gimme with today’s "fast racquets and slow courts." It is impossible to establish position at the net as the person rushing in after the serve will volley up and leave him or herself a sitting duck.

And a sitting duck is something Navratilova, who claims to be paranoid about not doing enough, clearly has no intention of ever leaving herself.

She continues as a fan of the greats of tennis, the "artists with the ball" as she describes folks like Rod Laver and Evonne Goolagong. But she also pays critical homage to current greats such as Justine Henin, Roger Federer ("I think Roger needs a coach … you can’t coach yourself. You don’t see it.") and Novak Djokovic ("The beauty of Djokovic, he knows what he doesn’t know and he keeps working on it.")

Explaining her own success, she says that, "no matter what they threw at me I handled; and they weren’t always bable to handle what I threw at them. So she continues on her personal journey, what she terms her "…quest for excellence. Learning new things and getting better at whatever I can do."

And she vows to keep her promise to Billie Jean King, who shared knowledge of the game with her, as long as she was always willing to pass along what she knew.

So, if you think you can handle someone who is driven by "curiosity and wanting to be the best I can be;" if you can follow her mantra to "get out of bed and do my best," then maybe there’s a coach for you … if the situation is right.

Kent Oswald is a long-time Tennis Week contributing writer and former TW editor. His feature story "Tennis No Longer A Scarlet Letter At Rutgers" earned second-place honors in the eighth Annual U.S. Tennis Writers’ Association Writing Awards last March.
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