Martina Navratilova named SportsCentury athlete No. 19

Martina was alone on top
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

She came to the United States to play tennis and became the queen of Burger King. Two decades later, she left tennis as the queen of the game.

 Martina Navratilova
Martina Navratilova won 56 Grand Slam championships, second only to Margaret Court.

It wasn't easy for Martina Navratilova, born a Czechoslovakian but with the heart of an American. It was hard shaping up and winning a record nine Wimbledons, including six consecutively on the hallowed grass. It was even more difficult winning over the fans. Her public perception advanced from animosity to acceptance to adulation.

"How gratifying it must have been for her," Frank Deford wrote. "To have achieved so much, triumphed so magnificently, yet always to have been the other, the odd one, alone: lefthander in a righthanded universe, gay in a straight world; defector, immigrant; the (last?) gallant volleyer among all those duplicate baseline bytes.

"When she came into the game, she was the European among Americans; she leaves as the American among Europeans -- and the only grown-up left in the tennis crib. Can't she ever get it right?"

Martina became a one-name celebrity, like Michael and Reggie, like Magic and O.J. She defected in 1975, became a U.S. citizen six years later, and dominated tennis in the eighties the way Bill Tilden did in the twenties.

Though raised on the slow clay courts of Czechoslovakia, Navratilova eschewed the polite, baseline-anchored woman's game. With a wicked serve, a rush to the net, and a ferocious volley, she was a full court drama, complete with emotional outbursts.

She won only three major singles titles before she was 25, an age when many women players are ready to retire. She finished with 18, including four U.S. Opens, three French and two Australian. Adding in her 38 doubles titles, Navratilova won 56 Grand Slam championships. Only Margaret Smith Court has won more total (62) majors.

Since the Open era began in 1968 (and statistics were carefully recorded), no player -- male or female -- has won more tournaments than Navratilova's 167 or more matches than her 1,438 (against just 212 defeats). She was ranked No. 1 for 331 weeks, second only to Steffi Graf's 373 since rankings began in 1975. Her earnings of $20,344,061, was a record until surpassed by Graf in 1998.

More stats: Navratilova had consecutive match winning streaks of 74 (the women's record), 58 and 54; won six consecutive Grand Slam singles titles in a 14-month stretch; and had years with the unbelievable records of 86-1, 78-2, 90-3 and 89-3.

"But her influence went far beyond numbers," Robert Lipsyte and Peter Levine wrote in "Idols of the Game."

"As a lesbian, Navratilova expanded the dialogue on issues of gender and sexuality in sports. In the years that she and Chris Evert were locked in their fierce rivalry to be Number One, sports fans saw it was possible for two very different women, physically and emotionally, different in lifestyle and playing style, to both be great champions -- and friends."

Born Martina Subertova on Oct. 8, 1956, in Prague, her parents divorced when she was three. Her mother moved the family to rural Revnice, just outside Prague, and in 1962, she remarried, to Marislav Navratil. Martina took the name of her stepfather, adding the feminine "ova."

At 4 ½ she was hitting a tennis ball off a cement wall and at seven she was playing regularly. At 15 she won the Czech national championship. In 1973, at 16, she turned pro and competed in the United States.

In her autobiography, Navratilova wrote, "For the first time in my life I was able to see America without the filter of a Communist education, Communist propaganda. And it felt right. ... I honestly believe I was born to be an American. With all due respect to my homeland, things never really felt right until the day I got off the plane in Florida."

Two years later, she defected. After losing to Evert in the semifinals of the 1975 U.S. Open in Queens, the 18-year-old Navratilova crossed the East River to the offices of the Immigration and Naturalizations Service in Manhattan. Within a month, she received her green card.

While there was strength in her game, her weakness for fast foods, sleek cars, gold jewelry and Gucci garb almost stopped her climb to the top. Like many a teenager, she fell in love with Whoppers and Big Macs, fries and milkshakes. She beefed up to 167 pounds on her 5-foot-7 1/2 frame and tennis authority Bud Collins described her as "the Great Wide Hope."

It would not be until 1978 that Navratilova would become No. 1 and win her first singles Grand Slam, defeating Evert in the Wimbledon final, the tournament that she always had dreamed of winning. A dozen years later, after winning her ninth Wimbledon, she said, "I prefer to consider my love for Wimbledon a rational reverence."

Meanwhile, Navratilova also had more earthly loves, such as an affair with author Rita Mae Brown. In July 1981, soon after being granted U.S. citizenship, she took the bold step of telling the truth when asked about her sexual preferences. Navratilova said she was bisexual.

"Martina was the first legitimate superstar who literally came out while she was a superstar," said Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. "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."

But Navratilova's honesty cost her millions in endorsement opportunities because of corporate homophobia.


That summer she moved to Dallas to live with basketball star Nancy Lieberman, who became her personal trainer and hardened her physically and mentally. Navratilova also hired Renee Richards as a coach. Navratilova's game took off. She regained her status as No. 1 in 1982 and held it, for the most part, until the summer of '87.

It took Navratilova years to stop Evert's domination of her, but once she did, she controlled the rivalry. After losing 21 of their first 25 matches, serve-and-volleyer Navratilova finished with a 43-37 edge over baseliner Evert.

In 1982, Navratilova went 90-3 and became the first female athlete to earn more than one million dollars in a year. In 1983, she was 86-1, losing only to Kathy Horvath in the fourth round of the French Open. She also started her streak of winning 109 consecutive doubles matches, over more than two years, with Pam Shriver.

Navratilova won the final three majors of 1983 and when she won the first three in 1984, it appeared she would finally win the Grand Slam. But Helena Sukova upset her in the Australian Open semifinals in December.

In the next three years, she would reach the finals of all 11 Grand Slam tournaments she entered, winning six. In 1987, she broke Suzanne Lenglen's record of five consecutive Wimbledons (1919-23).

While Navratilova would never regain her No. 1 ranking, she would win another Wimbledon. In 1990, at 33, she won her ninth Wimbledon, breaking the record she shared with Helen Wills Moody. By then, she was a crowd favorite, the grande dame of tennis who finally heard the cheers for her, not for her opponent.

She officially retired from the tour in 1994, but came back in 1995 to win her third Wimbledon mixed doubles title. She is involved with various charities that benefit animal rights, underprivileged children and gay rights and also plays on the Legends Tour.

"Through all her transformations -- of body, hair, clothes, glasses, nationalities, coaches, lovers -- the one thing, ever the same, ever distinct, is her voice, which is pitched to shatter a champagne flute," Deford wrote. "It brought forth sounds of decency and forthrightness, leavened with wit and compassion. Tennis was very blessed to have such a voice for so long, for these times."