The Lioness in Winter
By WILLIAM A. HENRY III
Monday, Nov. 30, 1992
When she half-strode, half-skipped into Madison Square Garden to tumultuous applause last week, Martina Navratilova broke records. But she has lasted so long that she does that every time she plays -- win or lose. When her opponents had controversial calls go against them in the opening singles and doubles matches that she played just an hour apart, Navratilova set aside competitive advantage for queenly benevolence and conceded the (not so crucial) points. When she adjourned to the pressroom after winning both matches, she spoke briefly and blandly of her play, then waded more eagerly into political controversy over an antigay amendment to the Colorado constitution that she is suing to have overturned, and vowed to quit her beloved Aspen home if she fails.
If one hadn't seen her running around the court, contorting into improbable positions to hit impossible angles, flinging herself into the air to intercept balls streaking in at 100 m.p.h., exulting at every reassurance that her athleticism was intact -- after 36 years, more than 2,000 career matches and double knee reconstruction -- one might have thought the grande dame of tennis was making a stately segue into the next phase of a stubbornly public life. But four years after she started publicly flirting with the idea, the most successful woman in the history of professional sports is not quite ready to retire.
She winces at talk about changes in her body as she keeps trying -- mostly successfully -- to surpass players half her age. Tennis is a game of intimidation, and Navratilova's renown used to have opponents beaten before a ball was struck. Now, though she prides herself on candor, she struggles not to sound vulnerable. "Am I a little slower? Maybe. But Billie Jean King thinks I'm hitting the ball as well as ever, and I definitely have more shots than I did eight years ago. If I'd had a forehand down the line back then, I would have won a few more French Opens, at least." She blends tinkering with her game with a methodical shortening of her schedule, playing a little less each year. She has bypassed the French Open, with its two weeks of endless running on clay, since 1988, and the Australian Open, in Down Under swelter that can reach 140 degreesF on court, since 1989. She takes a three-month spring break, plays no-pressure exhibitions in midsummer and enters a minimum number of tournaments to meet the rules. Next year, when many people expected that she would emphasize doubles, at which she is the best ever, she will focus on singles instead. "Doubles," she says, "is something I can come back to when I'm older."
She still evokes awe. Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere, who beat Navratilova twice in 1990 but was steamrollered at the Garden last week, says, "I really don't think she's getting any less good. There are days when she plays the best tennis she has ever played. She just has more ups and downs." When asked about her highlights of 1992, Navratilova cites two victories and, unthinkable a few years ago, a defeat by the current No. 1, Monica Seles, at Wimbledon. "I looked at the videotape, and it was much closer than I thought," she says with a smile. A couple of years ago, the sense of might-have-been would have nagged at her for months.
Her standing as the all-time greatest in her sport seems beyond challenge. She has played more singles matches, and won more, than any other tennis athlete, male or female; she has captured more titles and earned more prize < money -- $18.3 million and climbing. If excellence is measured by a single shining season, no one is likely ever to top her 1983, when she went 86-1 and took 16 titles. Or her 1984, when she ended a 55-match win streak with a single loss, then captured her next 74. If the measure is longevity, she has won at least one title a year for 20 straight years and ranked in the top five for the past 18.
"I don't think about history much," Navratilova claims in public, "or I probably wouldn't play anymore." In private, friends say, she is acutely aware of her place in history, as a player and as a symbol. She transformed sports for women by taking on the training discipline of men -- lifting weights, running sprints, following a rigid carbohydrate-loaded diet. She emphasized mental preparation as much as physical, supplanting the customary touring father or coach with Team Navratilova, a floating coterie of trainers, playing partners and amateur headshrinkers -- although they could not always avert the abrupt collapses of concentration that former player and now commentator Mary Carillo calls "Martina meltdowns."
Perhaps her most lasting legacy is having lived as an open homosexual while competing. Other gay superstars duck questions, solicit a conspiracy of silence, make marriages of convenience. Navratilova has told the blunt truth to everyone, from biographers to Barbara Walters -- not for sensation but to promote understanding and advance causes like the Colorado suit. "People in this country don't know what to think about gays," she says. "I just hope we turn the energy away from prejudice to something positive. I'll never run for office -- I'm too honest for that -- but I hope my career and name mean that I can be involved on some level, making a difference." Those sound like the words of a woman in transition. But out on the court last week, the arms were rippling, the legs were limber, and the unblinking eyes were still focused on the prize. Martina Navratilova is the lioness in winter.