The Tennis Week Interview: A Quick Set With Martina Navratilova
By Suzi Petkovski
Martina Hingis may have retired prematurely at 22, but the original Martina is still going strong at 46. The all-time tournament winner (167 singles titles and 168 doubles titles through February) provides short takes on her long career with Tennis Week contributing writer Suzi Petkovski.
Q. Your namesake, Martina Hingis, has called it quits at 22; you did not become a dominant force until after 25.
A. My game was late-blooming. When youíre a serve-and-volleyer, it takes a while to develop that. You canít be great at 16. There are too many shots to hit. But I just committed myself very late. Who knows what I would have done had I started five years earlier. I really lost about seven years of physical prime time just getting by on my talent and not doing all the work. At the same time, I was on my own. I did the best I could without a coach. Once I got a coach (Renee Richards), it was like, ĎHey, I can improve!í
Q. Youíve had one of the most successful careers in sport, and youíre still pushing yourself. Where does that drive come from?
A. To be the best that you can be. Not to be the best tennis player, I know Iíll never be the best again. Iím not the best doubles player out there. But I want to be the best that I can be at this time. So I want to do everything possible to get there. Itís just the desire to excel, do well and do your best. I donít know another option. I just donít get it when people have the talent and they donít want to put in the work. I want to know that I did everything I possibly could. I donít want to have one regret when Iím on my deathbed Ė at the age of 125!
Q. Are you as competitive now as in your prime?
A. That doesnít change. You either are competitive or youíre not. Most people are competitive once they get on the court or the field of combat. But not so many people are competitive in their preparation. Thatís where I differ from most people. I do everything I possibly can to get ready so that I can be the best at whatever I do. When I play hockey, I take extra skating lessons, lessons for shooting the puck. I donít want to show up there once a week and think Iím gonna be great. Thatís not gonna happen; I canít be 46 and show up and play great. I like to prepare properly. The competitiveness, or being competitive, is really about knowing youíve put in the work and itís time to put it to use.
Q. You once graphically likened your commitment to eggs and bacon: the chicken is involved, the pig is committed.
A. Brutal, but true. Again, when you are committed, you do the preparation. You donít just do everything once youíre out there playing a match. You have to be willing to do everything to get there. That means eating the right food, working out, getting your sleep. Yeah, youíd rather go to the movies tonight but you need to get your sleep. Itís a total commitment.
Q. Youíre looking as fit as ever. How often do you work with your trainer, Giselle Tirado?
A. Every day. I take days off here and there but I have to earn them. Itís not that we do that much, but we do it often. Doesnít have to take long. Once the tournament rolls around, you just maintain it; the work has been done. But leading up, you do a fair bit of work. We spend as much time stretching as we do working out. As a result of that, Iím more limber now than Iíve ever been.
Q. You didnít just dominate the game, you took it to a new frontier, with gym work-outs, nutrition, and a full-time coach. You were also the first player to win a Grand Slam (the 1982 French Open) with a large-headed racquet. Whatís been your legacy?
A. I wasnít the first with a full-time coach, but I didnít have a coach for seven years, so finally I got one (Renee Richards) and then I had one all the time. I think what I changed was the diet and working out off the court, trying to become a better athlete. Not just putting in the time on the court. Thatís where I pushed the game forward.
Q. You defected at age 19 and had your sexuality discussed and dissected publicly. Was it important, from both a professional and personal standpoint, to fight those battles of independence early?
A. Sexuality was never a battle, never a problem for me. It was a problem for other people. The difficult part was leaving my country, my family. My mother, sister, grandparents. Thatís something that had to be done, unfortunately. Thatís the one regret I have Ė that I had to do it. I donít regret that I did it, but Iím sad I had to do it. That will toughen you up. Once I did that, everything else was a piece of cake.
Q. Youíre a serve-volleyer who grew up on clay, a million-dollar athlete who started out in a communist society, a gay athlete in a game that spruiks its Ďfemininityí. Have you always swum against the tide?
A. I didnít have a choice. I didnít choose to be born in a communist country. I didnít choose to be gay. The serve-and-volley, well, being a baseliner wasnít an option for me. I didnít like being on the baseline. I wanted to be up at the net where the action is. It just surprises me that more people werenít that way. Of course, in my time there were many more serve-volleyers. Itís died out since then, but growing up, I saw Billie Jean King play, Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong. Chris Evert was the first true baseliner. After that, there were more baseliners than volleyers.
Q. Chris had so many admirable qualities. But is it disappointing to you that so many girls copied the Evert game, rather than yours?
A. Itís definitely more difficult to play my kind of game. You have to have a lot of ability, quickness, reflexes and perseverance to go after it. Because itís much more risky, it takes longer to develop and it takes more skill. Thatís why you see a whole bunch of baseliners. No serve-and-volley because the returns are so much better now than they were in my day. Playing with wood racquets, you would see more serve-and-volley because you couldnít hit as good a return. You couldnít hit the ball that hard or with so much topspin. These racquets really help the baseliners a lot more than they help the serve-and-volley player. I see 12-year-olds who want to come to the net but the 12-year-old across the net is hitting the crap out of it. And they canít handle it. I have a hard time volleying now; so how are they going to handle it? If you donít have success at the net, why go there?
Q. Youíve been an inspiration to so many diverse groups Ė Eastern Bloc athletes, gay people, women, fitness freaks and now Ďmatureí folk. Who inspired you?
A. Rod Laver, Margaret Court and Billie Jean King were the players I really loved watching and wanted to play like the most. But if they didnít exist, I still would have come to the net. If the volley didnít exist, I would have invented it. I think the game inspired me more than anything. As Billie Jean said to me, sheís never seen the ball come over the net the same way twice. Thereís so much variety to it. Iím still learning and improving some of the technical stuff. The game is such a great challenge. You never stop learning and itís always fun out there.
Q. Youíre a mentor to Daniela Hantuchova. Why did you put up your hand?
A. She asked for me. The pupil chooses the teacher. But I really havenít done that much with her. Iíd like to do more, but she has a very good coach (Nigel Sears) who pretty much has everything under control. Sheís asked me a few questions here and there, but Iíve not been as active in that as I would like. A mentor can only do as much as the mentee lets you do. I canít give you answers if you donít ask me the questions. But again, I donít think she needs it.
Q. Are you close with any of your former peers?
A. Sure. Chris and I see each other here and there. Obviously we have a lot of history together but her life is completely separate now from the tennis world. Iím really good friends with Pam Shriver. Weíll stay close for the rest of our lives.
Q. Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Hana Mandlikova and Steffi Graf deprived you of a few Grand Slam titles, but also helped turn you into the player you became. Are you grateful for those rivals?
A. Youíre only as good as the opponents you beat. You could be the greatest player in the world, but if you donít have great opposition, people arenít going to see you hit great shots because youíre not forced. In golf, you can play great on your own Ė itís you and the golf course. But tennis, you need quality play to make the great get. You need to be pushed. Yeah, I could have won more but Iím glad that I was pushed to the level I was.