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Tart with a Heart
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Navratilova hands over the baton
By Sue Mott (Filed: 05/07/2004)

A Wimbledon Legend
The greatest women's tennis player of all time glanced around at Wimbledon yesterday and her gaze fell on the new superstar of the sport, all smiles and micro red mini-skirt, Maria Sharapova. "Look at her," said Martina Navratilova, indulgently. "She's wearing her All England Club badge already." Tenderly, she touched her own circular badge, her mind flitting back over nine singles championships, the first of them earned in 1978 long before Sharapova was born.

Retirement plan: Martina Navratilova has played in her last Wimbledon

"Hey, Maria!" she called. The new champion looked up. "Welcome to the club!" Navratilova said, gesturing to the badge. They smiled in mutual recognition.

Thirty years between them and yet they hold something rare and wonderful in common. The knowledge of how it feels to win Wimbledon. Now one is just beginning the adventure of a glorious career and the other is retiring from SW19 forever. Navratilova, having astounded the sporting world by competing in the singles, the mixed and women's doubles at the age of 47, will not be coming back next year. It's over. And Ova. The baton now passes to the younger generation.

Is she regretful? A tinge. "It's not about the last Wimbledon. It's about me not playing my best tennis. It wasn't good enough. But it doesn't always work out the way you want. The Czechs should have been in the final of the European Championship. But that's why we love sports so much. You never know the ending." A wild giggle floated over from Sharapova's table. "It's either a happy ending or a sad one." The former champion looked wistful.

The perfect sentimentalist ending would have been for Navratilova to break Billie-Jean King's record of 20 Wimbledon titles. It will not happen now. They will be inseparably successful forever. "But it was never about records. It was about playing the game," she insisted. Sentimentalism never gripped her as it did the on-lookers. This time she did not pluck a few blades of grass from the court, as she had done, reverently and symbolically, in 1990 when she won her last singles title against Zina Garrison.

"It never occurred to me this time. Court 13! I wasn't going to take that with me," she said with a grin. "It was very anti-climactic. This has been the screwiest, windiest, most rain-interrupted Wimbledon I ever played. I never played on the Centre Court once. But this was not a trip down memory lane. It's been about playing the game. I wanted to play well so much that I got nervous. I didn't allow myself to think properly or my body to flow.

"It happens more when you get older. That's why the 17-year-old won. Did you see any nerves in her? I didn't have any nerves when I played Chris Evert 26 years ago. I was down 2-4 in the third and the young me just thought: 'Oh, no problem.'

"It's not the age thing. What am I supposed to have – dementia by now? What I am doing is meant to be inspiring people not making them say: `She shouldn't be doing that.'

"You know, when I was playing Gisela Dulko in the second round of the singles on Court 3, one of my business associates overheard three club members talking about me, two men and one woman, all of them aged somewhere between 70 and death. Of course, the men were negative and the woman was positive. The men were saying: 'Oh this is terrible for women's tennis,' parroting Michael Stich's comments, so they weren't even able to think for themselves. They were being negative instead of celebrating what it is. How can anything that I do be negative? Did I stop being good? Yes, I am not as good as I was, but I still am pretty damn good."

Proof: 13 Grand Slam singles titles, 31 doubles, nine mixed doubles and a few sacred strands of shrivelled grass in her jewellery box. "I know I have a talent. I owe it to the gods to explore that talent to the limit. It's a cross that I have to bear. A very pleasant cross. It's a legacy I have to live up to."

Icons, like the rest of us, can achieve immortality by the simple expedient of having children. Navratilova, being gay, chose not to exercise that option. "That would have been an ego thing. Just to pass on the genes. To get another male athlete and have an offspring. That would have been interesting to see. But that is ego talking. That is nothing to do with what's good in this world. So I don't regret that I don't have children. I have a bunch of children – with four legs." She has 14 dogs, including a new baby Staffordshire bull terrier collected on this trip. "That's plenty for me to look after." Her face lit up with a smile.

She also has a close family. Her sister lives in Stockholm and she regularly e-mails her relatives in Prague. She still, long after the Russian tanks have rolled away from east Europe, finds it hard to believe in the freedom her home country enjoys. "I am still amazed that Czechoslovakia is not a communist country. That's all I knew. Their freedom is one of the greatest delights of my life.

"I mean, Sharapova. She wouldn't have come out either. If the communists were still going we would never have heard of her. They were sending people to

Siberia. You didn't get out of Siberia. So I really appreciate where she came from. More so than anybody." She thought a minute. "Except, maybe, Solzhenitsyn."

This, you are constantly reminded, is an athlete with a good deal more than tennis balls ricocheting around the brain pan. In the case of some sporting heroes, the grunt may be the most intelligent noise they utter. Navratilova always had an intellect to go with the game.

"That's why my perspective on life is rather unusual. That's why I appreciate everything I have and that's why I want to do everything I can for others. I am still amazed when I go to a grocery store that I can buy anything I want and that I don't have to wait in line. Really! You don't get rid of your childhood that easily. I was in Czechoslovakia until I was 18. I'd go get the bread and milk and butter every other day because we didn't have a refrigerator. Sometimes, on a lucky day, I'd go to the sweet shop. I never felt deprived, that was the norm."

It has not been an easy life. Neither has Sharapova's in a different way. Martina's only advice to the younger star is "Go with it! Go on the ride and enjoy it. She works harder than most, for sure. She is meticulous, very focused and determined. She is a great role model for kids.

"I didn't discover her back in Moscow. I just saw that she was good. Her father asked me what he should do and I said: `Go to Nick Bollettieri's in Florida. They will teach her a forehand and backhand. They hit a million balls there.' Now she's got it all. She has the selfishness, the tunnel vision, you have to have. To tune out all the other distractions.

"Fame I don't think will be a problem for her. She's been groomed for it. I don't see her going off partying or wanting to be an actress. Boyfriends might be a problem but the biggest thing could be injuries. She being so long, she could be more prone to injuries. She has the body of an 800 metre runner. The ankles, the knees, even the hips could be more hard pressed because of the height.

"But Maria winning is the best thing for women's tennis. Those old farts were criticising women's tennis because I was beating somebody and can still compete. But her win proves there's good depth in women's tennis. I could see she was improving. I talked to her father a couple of times. He said: `Oh, she's not getting as good as she should be.' I'm like: `Settle down, she's getting there.' Now I think she's exceeded expectations. It will be tough for her. She'll be a good scalp to get for the others now. But she can handle it.

"Also it's good because a Williams didn't win. Not because they're not good but because they haven't given the game 100 per cent. It's almost been like a hobby. So OK, what's more important to Venus: design or tennis? What's more important to Serena: acting or tennis? The fact we are even asking the question is a tell-tale sign.

"Yes, absolutely, explore other things. But it must take some of their energy away from tennis. It would have been bad for women's tennis if Serena could still win and be No 1 while talking about acting and reading scripts. So now we have a new star and Serena might start taking it seriously.

"Serena wants it, but she can't just want it during a match. As an American football coach once said: `Most athletes have the will to win but very few have the will to prepare.' She's going to want to mount a comeback. She's got the attitude. She will want to be the queen again."

It is disconcerting to hear the ease with which Navratilova talks about other, younger, players ascending to the throne that was her own. She wears a cap and shades but it might as well be the full ermine and tiara. For those that watched her revolutionary assault on the daintier aspects of women's tennis, there will only ever be one queen of Wimbledon. Perhaps she laments the ageing process, but in public there is absolutely no rage against the dying of the light and backhand.

"It's a natural progression, I only mind the wrinkles. I haven't had any work done, as you can see," she said, ruefully pulling at the skin of her face. "I always thought I would have these bags under my eyes taken out. But I'm too much of a wimp. My solution is just to go in a dimly lit place."

So apart from having dimmer switches put into all her houses, her future is full and busy. She will compete at the Olympics in Athens, the US Open and the end-of-year women's championships. She will found a tennis academy in America, an animal shelter and probably ("I don't know if I have the temper for it") enter tennis politics. There's things to fix.

"The agents are an abomination for the most part. They milk the players and then throw you away like dirty laundry and look for the next great thing. That's going to be the trick for Maria. It's hard to know your friends."

Friends for Navratilova were hard won. She left the East at time when it was called "defection" not emigration. She became a gay icon and a politicised figure, whether she wanted to or not. She earned a multi-million-pound fortune and yet the most precious possession among her jewels are a few wizened blades of old grass. She represents the opposite of Oscar Wilde's weary cynicism. She knows the price of nothing and the value of everything. We will miss her.


4,918 Posts
Thanks for this article, which goes some way to exposing her character and her origins for people who may not have had the chance to read about them before. She falls into the BJ King-Williams sisters category of someone who had to fight through a lot of prejudices and handicaps to reach the top, whereas Court, Evert and Graf had much more stable backgrounds and favourable starts in life.

As a career-long fan of Martina, I'm no impartial observer on her achievements but she has definitely left her mark on women's tennis both on and off the court and I think it is a better sport because of her and she, undoubtedly, a better person because of it.

1,747 Posts
Great article and some great points about women's game... you gotta love her!
Well done Martina. :)
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Reactions: arcus

750 Posts
yeah, nice article.

Martina is the greatest wimbledon champion of all time. The scrutiny about her beating BJKs record means nothing when you consider she won singles 9 times in the open era. She is the stand alone performer on the grass at the worlds premier slam.

Wimbledon didnt end how it should have this year, but to be in 3 events at 47 with a good shot at winning 2 is something special.

Too bad MN didnt get the appreciation she deserves from fans here or the powers that be at the all england club when she played her last match on tennis' greatest stage.
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