High Strung (by Steve Tignor), Lost Chapter: Martina's Moment
In honor of Petra Kvitova's breakthrough win this past weekend, I'm posting a "lost chapter" of my book "High Strung," about Kvitova's Czech forerunner, Martina Navratilova, and a breakthrough moment that she experienced at the 1981 U.S. Open. This was meant to be Chapter 19 (of 20) in the book, which was otherwise exclusively about the men's 1981 U.S. Open. When I sent it to my editor, he wondered what I was doing. "You haven't even mentioned the women once in 75,000 words, and now you want to put a whole chapter in about them?" I deferred to his judgement; he was right, and I also had no choice. But I loved writing this chapter, because it truly was a dramatic moment and turning point for Navratilova, as well as for Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, and women's tennis in general, and it mirrored almost exactly what was happening with Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and Ivan Lendl on the men's side that year.
I'm happy to say that, nearly a year later, I loved reading this just as much as I did writing it. I know we've had more than our share of nostalgia for this era, but compared to the stories of the pros today, those of players like Navratilova, in her struggle not just to become a tennis champion, but to become an American accepted by Americans, really were powerful. Hope you enjoy it, too.
“Go back to Russia
!”—advice screamed in the direction of Martina Navratilova (formerly of Czechoslovakia) by an upper-deck U.S. Open heckler in 1981
“I don’t think I would take a vacation at Flushing Meadows,” Martina Navratilova said with a laugh. 1981 had been a year of change and tumult for the newly minted American citizen, but she was in a good mood at the moment. She had just beaten her longtime rival Chris Evert, the tournament’s top seed and the world’s No. 1 player, in a classic three-set semifinal. Now Navratilova would get a chance to play her first U.S. Open final, in front of 18,000 of her adopted countrymen.
But as Navratilova intimated in her press conference, Louis Armstrong Stadium hadn’t been a pleasant place for her or her opponent that afternoon. In the middle of the third set, a raffish, tipsy crew of “known scalpers and gamblers” in Row Q of the upper deck began to get rowdy. They were drinking, they were screaming, they were cursing, they were brawling with security guards. They were so annoying to the spectators and disruptive to the players that play had to be halted to shut them up. One of them, an Englishman named Philip Greenwood, began to taunt Navratilova obscenely. She answered him with a yell: “Go have another beer and shut up during the points!”
Finally an all-out chase scene began. Police, security guards, and even ushers tore across the bleachers, as everyone else in the stadium, including Evert and Navratilova, stopped to watch. It ended when an usher and St. John’s student by the name of Ron Calamari took a flying leap and took one of the rowdies down. When play ensued, it was, to the surprise of most tennis observers, the high-strung Navratilova who recovered her concentration more quickly than the eternally even-keel Evert. Navratilova came back from 2-4 down in the third set to win 6-4. “That scuffle in the stands could easily have put me away,” Navratilova said afterward. Maybe she was finally beginning to feel at home at the Open.
As of 1981, Navratilova was the women’s version of Bjorn Borg in New York. She had won Wimbledon twice and been a dominant player for nearly a decade, but she had never reached the final at Forest Hills or Flushing Meadows. Like her countryman and fellow U.S. transplant Ivan Lendl, she had been stamped with the choker’s label. In the previous four years, she had been upset in the semifinals by Wendy Turnbull, Pam Shriver, Tracy Austin, and, in the fourth round in 1980, by her younger countrywoman Hana Mandlikova. Always ready to speak her mind, Navratilova had complained about the swirling winds, the roaring airplanes, and the “fans shouting their lungs out.” She compared Flushing to a “medieval marketplace.” It seemed that, like Borg, she was another sensitive European who wasn’t tough enough to handle tennis in the Big Apple.
Navratilova’s emotional history with the Open went deeper, though, back to the days at Forest Hills. It was there that, as an 18-year-old high school student in 1975, she had announced her defection to the United States from communist Czechoslovakia at a packed and chaotic press conference on the grounds. The media gathering had been hastily thrown together to keep Czech agents from grabbing her and taking her back home before the world could find out about her decision.
One year later, Forest Hills had been the sight of another public trauma for Navratilova. Everywhere she went in New York that summer, she was asked about her defection. The truth of her decision and her new life began to hit her: At 19, she was alone in the West, cut off from her family back in Prague forever. By the time she played her second-round match against the little-known Janet Newberry, it was all too much. Navratilova, before a meager late-day audience, lost in three sets. After shaking hands, she sat down, put her head in her hands, and started to cry. She never stopped. Finally, Newberry herself walked over and helped her off the court, like someone helping an old lady across the road. “I hope I never see anyone in that condition again,” Newberry said.
Navratilova had spent much of her first year in the U.S. doing what patriotic citizens of the American empire do: going on shopping sprees and pigging out on junk food. By December 1975, just three months after her defection, the New York Times scolded that she had “become a walking delegate for conspicuous consumption. She wears a raccoon coat over designer jeans and a floral blouse from Giorgio’s, the Hollywood boutique. She wears four rings and assorted other jewelry . . . She owns a $20,000 Mercedes-Benz sports coupe . . . As an undisciplined gourmand, she is overweight.” With the binge came the hangover. After a year of non-stop travel, Navratilova was quickly burnt out. By the time she got to Forest Hills in ’76, “It all kicked in,” she told the Washington Post. “I had nobody to lean on. I couldn’t see my family, they couldn’t see me. I was all alone . . . . I felt like the whole world was against me.”
Over the next five years, Navratilova would go through many more highs and lows, triumphs and disasters, coaches and relationships, phases and fads. The stateless star was always in search of something better, something new; the answer was always around the next corner. Like Lendl, she became more American than most Americans. But where he embraced law and order conservatism, Navratilova, a native of Prague who had witnessed the Soviet invasion of 1968, embraced the American tradition of questioning authority—so much so that she earned a self-described reputation as “Martina the Complainer.”
In that time, she would win two Wimbledons, but the consensus was that even then she hadn’t tapped all of her sky’s-the-limit potential. Few other women players had ever moved or played the sport as fluidly and instinctively as Navratilova. Like McEnroe and Nastase, her mix of grace and power left most of her opponents looking drably earthbound (Rod Laver had singled her out for her potential when he saw her play as a 16-year-old). But as with Nastase and McEnroe, her genius for the game came with an acute, hair-trigger sensitivity to everything around her. The young Navratilova too often let her emotions get the best of her.
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