Martina Navratilova: I am who I am

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Martina Navratilova: I am who I am

“I have some news here from the Tennis Federation that Navratilova is getting too Americanized and doesn’t stick to the group of our players”. Everything started as a casual conversation. But Jan Kodes, as he revealed in his book, sensed what was happening, The CUPE chairman Antonin Himl had approached him because he was playing mixed doubles in 1975 with Martina Navratilova.

After the Federation Cup triumph in 1974, Antonin Bolardt, one of the communists in then leadership of Czechoslovak tennis, splead largely false rumors and threatened to clip Martina’s wings. “Either you follow what we dictate, or we’ll destroy you.” Vera Sukova, the national coach and a captain of the Federation Cup team realized that the situation was turning critical.

She was allowed to enter the Virginia Slims Circuit. Following her victory in Boston, she was going to fly home but, she decided to extend her stay in the United States by one more tournament on Amelia Island without informing any officials at home.

This gave them a reason to clip her wings. So, in a dark, deserted hallway at the Immigration and Naturalization Service building in Manhattan in August 1975, Navratilova told FBI agents that she wanted to defect. Navratilova's grandparents had their 30-acre property appropriated by Communists in 1948.

Twenty years later, she was told not to go outside and play, because Soviet tanks were rolling across Czechoslovakia. “I lived in the same house as my grandparents and my parents and it was a great place to grow up in.

We didn’t have much but we had enough. I was never hungry, I was never cold. My family took great care of me. I can only wish that childhood for every kid out there.” she said, despite her parents divorced and for years they hid Martina the existence of a step-brother.

Her father committed suicide after a stomach operation. Navratilova left her country as her sister and cousin did, as her tennis coach, a world champion figure skater, and 17 hockey players would do. They left that erosive ''timelessness'' of a communist society that the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel has written so often.

''It has nothing to do with politics,'' said a doctor to Sports Illustrated in 1986. ''Martina has freedom, and we do not, so I must cheer for her”. Despite the burden, that year she reached the Us Open semifinals, only losing to Chris Evert.

“Very often at tournaments, Martina and I were in the locker room together on the last day. Early on I noticed that we had different ways of preparing. Martina always seemed to have a little restless energy; she was a little more hyper than I was” Evert revealed in a radio show.

“It was very difficult for me, being removed from my family and not being able to go back. I was feeling very lonely and I was burned out. I had been playing tennis non-stop for six months. I was so tired I didn’t touch my racquet for two weeks and figured I’d play my way into the US Open when it came around in summer, and I lost in the first round,” she recalled after losing at the first round at 1976 Us Open.

She won her first major at Wimbledon in 1977. “I wanted it so badly in the early days, maybe that’s why I didn’t get it,” she says to the Telegraph. “I was very much an outsider. I would have liked to be the 'home team’, to have had the support Andy Murray gets, no matter what.

It was hard. When I first won Wimbledon, I was not a Czech anymore. I was not yet an American. I was stateless for six years. I didn’t get any homecoming anywhere because I didn’t have a country”. In the Eighties, when she was winning everything and everywhere, people were cheering the underdog.

“I never got the cream until the Nineties - when I wasn’t winning. I won people over eventually, for whatever reason, but it took a long time”. Since 1968 when the Open Era began, no male or female player won more singles tournaments than Navratilova (167), doubles events (177), or matches (2,189).

Since 1975, she lost only 219 times in singles and in 2006 she won the mixed doubles championship at the US Open a month away from her 50th birthday, becoming the oldest player in history to clinch a major title. Navratilova won 18 Grand Slam titles in singles, but only three of them came before her 25th birthday.

Sports Illustrated named her one of the “Top Forty Athletes of All-Time,” not only for having dominated a record nine Wimbledon Ladies Singles Championships and six in a row (1982-87), surpassing Suzanne Lenglen’s record of five straight (1919-23).

Navratilova appeared in 24 major singles finals and in a cumulative major competition won 306 times. When she defeated Chris Evert at the 1983 US Open, 6-1, 6-3, Navratilova became only the seventh female player in history to earn a Career Grand Slam, starting that “boxed set” she completed at the Australian Open in 2003.

She remains the only male or female players in the Open Era to hold a Career Grand Slam in singles, doubles and mixed doubles with Margaret Court. They don't have anything else in common. Before the 1981 Us Open, Navratilova publicly came out as a gay athlete.

“After me, some guy at Newsday was going to out Martina” Billie Jean King revealed to the New York Times. “She asked me what to do. I said: Don’t get outed! Control your message”. Despite losing about $19 million in endorsements, as she told Outsports in 2007, as corporate executives in the 1980s avoided her in the midst of the AIDS scare, Navratilova chose to became “ the first legitimate superstar who literally came out while she was a superstar” Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, told ESPN.

“She exploded the barrier by putting it on the table. She basically said this part of my life doesn't have anything to do with me as a tennis player. Judge me for who I am”. "Martina's genius," said King to Joel Drucker for a moving portrait on the Wta website in 2014, "was that she was always able to find the right people at the right time and place to help her become better." In the spring of '81, Navratilova met one of the greatest basketball player at the time, Nancy Lieberman, who helped her improve dramatically her fitness."She was bigger, she was stronger," said a top tenners from the '70s, Rosie Casals.

"She could play basketball, golf and had exceptional hand-eye coordination." Her mental and physical consistence boosted her confidence. Meeting the iconic transexual player, Renee Richards, added technical and tactical insights.

"I couldn't hit a topspin backhand," said Navratilova. "My forehand volley technique wasn't as good as it could be". She traced a road for the future. She left the world of tennis in a better condition than the state she had found when she started her career.

Navratilova invented what is now familiar, the concept of a team around a player, that tennis is an individual sport and at the same a result of a collective effort. That summer, in 1981, she had become a Us citizen but lost the final to young-prodigy Tracy Austin in Flushing Meadows and broke down after the match.

“They were accepting me as an American despite the fact that I came out as gay, because that certainly was a big no-no back then. That was amazing. I didn’t break down because I lost the match. I would have felt the same whether I won or lost.

I was weeping because I was accepted”. .