The history of sport is littered with the important, not just in athletic terms but also in the ways the individuals and achievements shaped society around them. Names like Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens and others made contributions to the modern world that can’t be underestimated. In the harsh, cold world of tennis, one name stands tall over all others when it comes to societal importance. It also happens to be one of the most fun names to say in all of sports. That name is Martina Navratilova.
Martina would go on to represent the United States on the court (winning a frankly ridiculous 40 consecutive FED Cup matches in the process), but such a fun last name (seriously, say it out loud nice and slow) gives a hint to her country of origin. Also, the fact that she is in this particular chapter of this particular book should probably give something away too. No, this isn’t a filing error. Martina Navratilova was born Martina Šubertová in Prague on October 18th 1956. Her parents divorced when she was three, and after her mother remarried she took on the surname of her stepfather. Excellent choice Martina, excellent choice.
Not only did she take his name, Martina also took Mr. Navratil on as her first tennis coach, although in his position as stepfather I doubt there was much of an application process. Tennis was in her family. Her maternal grandmother, Agnes Semanska, once held the number two position in the Czechoslovak national rankings. Martina Navratilova would go on to eclipse the achievements of her grandmother, in what could be the largest understatement in this entire book.
It didn’t take long for Navratilova to get into the swing of winning, picking up the Czechoslovak National Championships in 1972, aged just 15. There weren’t many left handers on court at that time, and this uniqueness (combined with the fact that she was just better at tennis than everyone else) made her practicaly unstoppable. The next year saw her visit the United States of America for the first time, and she was instantly grabbed by the consumer culture and especially the food. In her own words she was on a see-food diet, the old ‘see food, eat food’ adage. Martina returned to the States in 1975 to take part in the US Open, seeded number three for the event. It would be the most important tournament of her young life to date.
After being defeated by number one seed Chris Evert in the semi finals, Martina made a huge decision. She went straight to the Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York and informed them of her decision to stay in the United States and seek asylum. Czechoslovakia was going through a tough time in the 1970s, and the 18-year-old Navratilova decided against returning. If her request had been denied, the chances are this would have been the last we’d heard of the burgeoning tennis superstar. Luckily for Martina and the tennis world alike she was accepted, and one month later she received her green card to stay in the United States of America. Navratilova considered this her finest moment.
It is easy to write those words down, acknowledge that it is an impressive feat and just move on to the next fact, but some things in life need reiterating really. At the age of just 18 years, Martina Navratilova took the decision to request asylum in a foreign country, knowing full well what this meant for her family and life back home. Despite the sporting achievements of the young, 18 is still an age of adolescence. When I was 18 my biggest problem was working out how to suck less at playing guitar and how to get girls to not be repulsed by me. 1975 was a hell of a year for the 18-year-old Navratilova, as she also won her first major title, in the shape of the French Open doubles with the woman who would become her major tennis nemesis, (Tennemesis?) , Evert.
With the uncertainty about life off the court removed, Martina Navratilova continued to make great strides as the 1970s drew to a close. It was more a case of when as opposed to if she would win her first singles grand slam, and she duly ended this debate in 1978 when she captured the Wimbledon ladies’ title. This was quite the championships for people born in Czechoslovakia that would go on to represent the United States, as Ivan Lendl also won the mens singles title. Who did Navratilova defeat in the final to pick up her first grand slam singles title? Chris Evert. In doing so, Martina also replaced Evert at the top of the women’s rankings.
The rivalry between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert is arguably the greatest in the history of the female game. To say they dominated in the late 1970s and 1980s would be akin to saying that trying to outfly a peregrine falcon would be foolish. The two would meet 80 times in total (not including games that ended in walkovers). 61 of those came in finals, 14 of which were grand slam finals. The WTA Rankings were introduced in November 1975, and for the next 12 years one of the two were at the top of the ranking for all but 23 weeks of that. It was dominance, to say the least.
The 1980s were the decade of Martina Navratilova, to put it lightly. Granted US citizenship in 1981, she would reach nine consecutive Wimbledon ladies singles finals (1982-1990), go on winning streaks that are quite frankly unbelievable (74 matches in singles, 109 in doubles) and won everything there was to win in the game. If it was a major title Martina Navratilova won it, in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. To this day, she is one of only three women to achieve such a feat. Navratilova would spend a total of 332 weeks at number one in singles and 237 at the top of the doubles ranking, making her the only tennis player to spend more than 200 weeks at the top of both rankings. She was also in the top 10 for 20 straight years, including 15 straight years in the top three.
Is Martina Navratilova the greatest female tennis player of all time? This is a difficult question to answer in all sports due to the differences in competition over time, but any discussion as to who takes that mantle must include her. Is Martina Navratilova one of the most important athletes of all time? Undoubtedly yes. 1981 was the year she gained US citizenship, and it was also the year she came out as a lesbian, being one of the first professional athletes to do so. She was arguably the most high profile lesbian sports celebrity in the world, coming out in the same year Paris held its first Gay Pride Parade and Roman Reagan cancelled the White House’s subscription to ‘The Advocte’ (LGBT interest magazine).
Whilst coming out from such a high profile position is impressive enough, it was Martina’s attitude that was the most inspirational. Her overriding reaction mirrored exactly what everyone else’s should have been, basically saying ‘yeah, so what?’ She would openly confront homophobia wherever it was found, regardless of what it meant for her career. As she famously said, ‘Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people’.
Most sportspeople are inspirational purely because of their accomplishments and abilities in their chosen professions. Martina Navratilova stands tall as one of the most inspirational athletes of all time not only because of this, but also because of who she was. Her uncompromising attitude, her willingness to stand up against injustice and commitment to right causes and the truth make her the very definition of a sporting role model. Don’t you dare go thinking that she has abandoned these principles as she hurtles through her seventh decade, oh no. In 2008 she decided to regain her Czech citizenship, stating that it was more disgusting and painful to know that the people of the United States had knowingly elected George W. Bush than to think of her native Czechoslovakia and the hardline communist regime they hadn’t wanted in the first place.
Martina was among the inaugural class of inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame (alongside Billie Jean King among others) in 2013, and numerous publications and roundtables of knowing folk have proclaimed her the greatest tennis player of all time. Some qualify this by gender, others run the entire gamut by putting Martina on top of the combined list. Her record quite frankly speaks for itself.
If all of this wasn’t enough to make her a legend, she gave millions across the world the joy of shouting the word ‘Navratilova’. NAV-RA-TI-LO-VA. Sure, her accomplishments in tennis far outstripped this, but sometimes it is the simple things that truly matter.