Sally Jenkins was one of the best tennis writers. Here's a great piece on Martina in early 1990, the year she won the event for the 10th time!
Navratilova and Tennis: A Simply Perfect Match;No. 2 Drives for Another Shot at No. 1
The Washington Post Feb 23, 1990; Sally Jenkins;
Martina Navratilova doesn't play tennis so much as it plays her. Within the vividly marked confines of the court, she has explored her character, disguised nothing and invented herself too. She has no more secrets.
For 17 years tennis has been Navratilova's chief love and endeavor, and once it was her method of escape from oppression. Before countless opponents and stadium crowds she has vented her emotions and flaws. There is very little of her that hasn't been revealed in it, whether it be her defection from Czechoslovakia at the U.S. Open in 1975, or that she cries easily, or her personal life. It gave her a Porsche and those two chunks of diamond in her ears.
"It's an extension of my being," she said. "And where else am I going to make that kind of money?"
The diamonds are ever present, cut and gleaming, and at times they are joined by a smile of surpassing largesse, white and brilliant as a third gem. It is her most attractive aspect, and when it appears, the rest of her features-the hard but fragile cheekbones, hollow and deep-set eyes-seem to suddenly settle in their rightful places. It can be brought forth by children, dogs or jewelry, but it is evoked most frequently and rewardingly when she moves around the tennis court with a little bit of heaven in her.
At 33, Navratilova is rediscovering an abiding affection for the sport. Her knees and ankles sometimes ache, she doesn't see the ball as well as she did, and all these teenagers with vacant, serial-killer expressions are milling around the locker room. But that's all right, because something very interesting is happening. In the aftermath of a painful two-year period, she has confronted the fact thatshe is no longer No. 1 and chased by the world, but No. 2 and chasing, with time dwindling, 20-year-old Grand Slam winner Steffi Graf of West Germany.
And she is relishing it.
"It used to be, I just wanted to be No. 1," she said. "I didn't care how. Now it's a combination of the competition, and the ability to do with a ball what I want with it. I mean exactly. To put it on a dime, with the right speed and the right spin. I love that. And giving it everything, my heart, my soul, and my body too."
There are several events on the women's tennis tour that Navratilova will attempt this season to win for the 10th time. Last week she won her 10th trophy at the Virginia Slims of Chicago, this week she is pursuing her 10th Virginia Slims of Washington title at Smith Center. But the magic number for Navratilova is nine. That would be the number of Wimbledon singles titles she would possess were she to win one more. She shares the All-England record at eight with Helen Wills Moody.
Graf has beaten Navratilova in the last two Wimbledon finals, and she knows that to loft the trophy again, it is inevitable that she meet the West German. That's all right too, because Navratilova has come to enjoy the mere "process" of seeking, at her relatively advanced age in tennis, to get better.
"I'm cursed by her and blessed by her at the same time," Navratilova said. "Because of her, I'm a better player and I'm still in the game. But because of her, I haven't won my ninth Wimbledon. She's faster, bigger, taller, and she hits the ball harder. If I can beat her when she's at her prime, and when I'm past mine, that would be an accomplishment."
17 and Holding
It was a wrenching realization for Navratilova to come to, that after winning 17 Grand Slam singles titles, fourth all-time among women, and holding the longest winning streaks in tennis at 74 and 58 consecutive match victories, she was mortal. And it made her directionless and resentful and tired.
"It just wasn't easy," she said. "When I was winning all those grand slams, it was like `Oh, another one.' I'd give anything to win one now."
At a loss, Navratilova turned to Billie Jean King, who made the Wimbledon semifinals at 39. A year ago a wretched Navratilova called King and said, "Am I too old?" King replied, "If I had your body, I'd still be playing." The result of the conversation was that King agreed to assist Craig Kardon in coaching Navratilova. They began just before Wimbledon last year, and Navratilova credits King withreawakening her game.
Navratilova still muses about what happened to her game and psyche over the last two years. Just the other day she decided it may have dated to 1986, a season in which she eventually parted with longtime coach Mike Estep. As she made up her schedule for that season, she crossed off every tournament she could until she had the bare minimum of 12. She refused interviews and public
appearances. She had the flu six times, the symptoms of an ulcer, bad knees and bad ankles; she was anemic.
She did not get any happier in 1987, and in 1988 she unravelled totally, failing to reach the final of a Grand Slam event. Friend Judy Nelson told her, "Even when you're winning, you're unhappy."
Navratilova now suspects she was harboring a case of burnout. "I should have known what was going on then," she said. "My body was rebelling because I just didn't want to be out there. Billie Jean really made me take stock and decide what I wanted to do."
Accountability has been King's chief lesson to Navratilova: to admit what was wrong and fix it, rather than deny it.
"She's just accepted a lot of responsibility for herself, and she's a happier person for it," Kardon said. "In everything, not just on the
court. Basically she's learned that if you look for bad things, you'll find them."
King and Kardon also discovered that Navratilova, complete as she was, had some curious technical weaknesses in her game. They went unnoticed primarily because she is so strong that she could cover them up. But in the two years without a coach after Estep left, they grew to glaring proportions. She has had to painstakingly relearn some things, simple things like the split step as she approaches the net. If she can move more efficiently, she can make up for the step or two of speed she has lost through age.
She also turned to other previously ignored resources like tactics. King has taught her how to look for patterns, to mix up her game more, and convinced her to try to adapt to a match, as opposed to muscling through it. "I was real stubborn," she said.
Navratilova's on-court performance can be charted by two things: her mindset and her serve. If either is out of kilter she is fretful.Experienced opponents know her various demeanors all too well. Since Chris Evert retired after the U.S. Open they have kept close company on an exhibition tour, trading confidences and opening their friendship beyond the competitive. Evert has begun telling
Navratilova what she looked for, small subtle tendencies. That she frequently knew where shots were going, from certain expressions and body language.
"I always knew when I had you," she said.
"Thanks coach," Navratilova said wryly to Evert. "Why didn't you tell me before?"
Navratilova never was more readable than in the U.S. Open final last year, when for 15 games she routed Graf. Ahead by a service break and just two games from victory, she could not win them. Her serve was broken by Graf in the 16th game, when she double faulted. King has made Navratilova watch the tape of that match over and over again. Navratilova writhes in her chair as she watches,
with the sure knowledge that she should have won it. "It makes her crazy," Nelson said. King's intention is to make Navratilova
confront what went wrong; she retreated and gave it away.
"I pulled back," Navratilova said. "And it cost me the match."
That was especially difficult to pick up from. One facet that Navratilova never had to rely on much before, but does now, is fortitude.A perusal of her victories shows that many of them came with ease-not much was required of her when her athleticism was so surpassing. It is a quality she certainly possesses, having dealt with some lonely years after her defection, and some unpleasantly
public revelations about her personal life, but she never has particularly displayed it on court.
"I knew I had a lot more than people gave me credit for," she said. "But I also know that for a long time I was depending on my athletic ability too much."
A certain perspective helps. She has allowed herself to return to her first love, skiing, with a new ranch in Aspen, Colo. She is an insatiable reader, who combs the newspapers for news of the changes in Eastern Europe, which makes her "ecstatic." She plans a trip there in May, her first since she played in the Federation Cup in 1986, which at the time was her first since she left in '75. She enjoys playing the role of the grand dame on tour, and the deeper appreciation she is beginning to receive from audiences.
There also is the lingering sense in Navratilova that she pleases the game as much as it pleases her. She loves the smooth fluidity of her play, the response of a crowd to her acrobatics. "When they go `Woooo,' " she said. "I know sometimes when I twist and hit a shot, it can look like ballet." She is endlessly intrigued by the texture and feel of striking a ball.
"That little yellow tennis ball," she said. "I still haven't hit it perfectly yet."