Martina Navratilova was born on October 18, 1956 in Prague (then capital of Czechoslovakia, now of the Czech Republic). Her early childhood was spent among the Krkonose Mountains, which are also known as the Giants Mountains, situated on the border with Poland. There she took her first ski lessons from her mother Jana, who was a ski instructor, and it was there that her love of mountains blossomed (Martina lived for years in Aspen, Colorado). Her attraction to tennis began some years later on the clay courts of Revnice (a small village in the Bohemian countryside, where Martina’s mother had moved after the separation from her husband). Tennis was a family tradition: Martina’s grandmother Agnes Semanska had been a good player for the Czechoslovakian Federation, prior to the Second World War. So little Martina spent a lot of time whacking a ball against the wall, with her grandmother’s wooden racket, and used to watch her mother while she was playing in her spare time. Martina’s first coach was her beloved stepfather Mirek Navratil, who married her mother in 1962. Jana, Martina’s only sister, was born the year after.
w “One day you will become champion at Wimbledon”; in that way Mirek spurred on Martina’s talent, exhorting her to attack, to move to the net as much as possible, to develop a creative and spectacular game. It was this same style she showed in later years, instinctive and daring. Eight years old, the little left-hander reached the semi-finals of her first tournament; then, she started to collect wins and experience playing junior tournaments, at home and abroad. Lessons taken at Klamovka Park with George Parma, the greatest Czechoslovakian tennis player at that time, improved Martina’s technique. The idea of becoming a professional tennis player started interesting her after she saw the great Rod Laver, winner of two Grand Slams, while he was playing a tournament in Prague. Martina was nine years old. Two years later came one of the most dramatic moments in Czechoslovakian history. On the morning of August 21, 1968 Moscow’s tanks entered Prague and put an end to the so called “Prague Spring”, during which Alexander Dubcek had tried to find the way to a “human socialism”. This suppressed definitively the silent hope of change harboured by Czech people after the Soviet conquest in 1948. A rigorous “normalization” process was imposed. Martina felt herself growing up in a sadder country. Poorer also, oppressed by a foreign dictatorship which made use of sports champions merely as propaganda tools. She decided she would not continue living under that regime.
Number one in the national rankings, Martina became a professional player in 1973. In the autumn of the same year she flew to the United States for her first visit to that country. The country of Disney World, the heart of western capitalism, the home of hamburgers and of her favourite actors, like Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy… At Akron, Ohio, Martina played against Chris Evert – the first match of a long series, which produced the nicest rivalry in individual sports. That day in Ohio, Chris was the winner, pretty queen of tennis and favourite of the American public. Frustrated by the continuous interferences of the Czechoslovakian Federation, which threatened not to give her exit visas because of her open-minded point of views, in August 1975 Martina left her native land for the last time to play the US Open (where she was defeated in the semi-final by Chris Evert). A month later Martina had got her “Green Card”. Just nineteen years old, she had stopped living like a student, playing ice-hockey or soccer with friends and she had left her family. It would be four years before she could once again embrace her parents and sister.
Martina’s first months as an American resident were not easy: on court she didn’t achieve the success she had hoped for and she gained weight from eating the wrong foods, which inspired Bud Collins to give her the infamous nickname “The Great Wide Hope”. Martina began to surround herself with good friends, gradually taking root in her new country. The golf champion Sandra Haynie proved a great friend and a great help: she taught Martina to control her tumultuous emotions, which had given rise to exhausting bursts of rage and made her lose matches within her reach. This new shape of mind presented Martina with her first great achievement: on July 8, 1978 she won Wimbledon, defeating Chris Evert. Her father’s prophecy had come true. Two days later, the WTA rankings got a new world Number One.
But more years had to pass before Martina could shake off her “loser” label and become the most successful player in tennis history. Private matters influenced her results; she regained her Wimbledon title in 1979, but won no Grand Slam tournaments in 1980. The press paid particular attention to Martina’s relationship with American bestseller writer Rita Mae Brown; Martina reacted with unusual frankness, publicly declaring her bisexuality. She paid for her sincerity: the greatest tennis player in history was not the most sponsored… On July 21, 1981 Martina became an American citizen, after longing for it so much. She crowned the year by winning a Grand Slam tournament: the Australian Open, still disputed on the grass of the Kooyong stadium. It was only the beginning of a new period in Martina’s career: one of big successes and great records when the public also began siding with her.
This change the result of a hard training regime, worked out together with great basketball star Nancy Lieberman; their brilliant collaboration went on from 1981 to 1984. The training schedule aimed at developing all the athleticism useful for tennis: lifting weights, stretching, running sprints, agility exercises, and not forgetting a good diet. For the first time she started to employ full-time coaches, like Renée Richards and (from 1983) Mike Estep. With their help Martina developed innovative training techniques, tested every aspect of the game, and improved her strokes to adapt to equipment changes. In these years times wooden rackets were gradually supplanted by the new oversize ones, which revolutionized the game: baseline strokes became more dominant, and Martina became more and more a lone exponent of serve and volley.
In 1982 a prodigious Martina showed the world her new strength, both physical and mental: she won a record 15 singles tournaments and 14 doubles tournaments, which means 29 tournaments in a year! They included her first victory on Parisian red clay and the first of her six straight wins on her beloved Wimbledon grass. In 1983 she achieved 15 singles and 13 doubles tournaments, winning for the first time at her adoptive homeland’s Open and proving herself again at Wimbledon and the Australian Open – this was called a “little” Slam. Again in 1984 she completed three-quarters of a Slam, losing only in the last final, the Australian Open, former compatriot Helena Sukova stopping Martina within a step of the Grand Slam.
By then, Martina had reached and exceeded the level of her great rival, but Chris Evert didn’t throw in the sponge. With humility and class, like a real champion, she rolled up her sleeves and began an intensive training program to adapt herself to Martina’s new abilities. Chris didn’t give up the Number One spot without a hard fight. The result was a beautiful rivalry, dignified and exciting, which for 10 years caused sports fans all over the world love women’s tennis. Martina and Chris showed two different ways of interpreting the game: on one hand, spectacular moves to the net with thrilling serve and volley action, on the other, surgically precise baseline attacks. Just as there was emotion and instinct from Martina, so there was control and thoughtfulness from Chris. The great rivalry ended in 1988, with Martina’s victory in the finals of the Chicago tournament. The year after Chris retired.
In August, 1987 Steffi Graf became the Number One in the world. A new era started for Martina as the former queen who fought against younger girls inspired more by Evert’s style, endowed with a typical adolescent boldness and not marked by age and life experiences. Yet in 1990 Martina achieved a further great record: her ninth victory at Wimbledon, demonstrating that grass more than any other surface could emphasize her virtuoso game.
1991 brought sorrow and bitterness to Martina’s life when her separation from Judy Nelson (her partner of eight years) captured for months the interest of the American media. Meanwhile, the Number One crown passed to the seventeen-year-old Monica Seles, against whom Martina played three straight finals: US Open, Milan and Virginia Slims Masters. The verdict was always the same: good and entertaining matches, uncertain till the last shots, when Monica’s physical resistance (and youth) used finally to prevail.
On February 21, 1993 Martina reached the win which she defined herself as one of the best and significant in her career: at the age of 36 years and 4 months, she defeated Monica over three sets with a final tie-break. Destiny determined that the Paris finals was their last match: on April 30, Monica was stabbed on court by a madman during the quarter-finals of the Hamburg tournament. With a lot of courage (and persuaded by Martina herself), she returned to the professional tour in August 1995, six months after Martina’s retirement. Unfortunately, wasn’t able to recapture the crown she lost through a stupid act of violence.
In November 1993 Martina announced her intention to retire from the professional tour at the end of 1994. In that way, she could say goodbye to all the tournaments she had loved during her twenty-one years career. 1994 was a year full of passion. At Rome she was defeated in the finals by Spaniard Conchita Martinez and, quite moved, she afterwards received a long and emotional standing-ovation. The Roland Garros clay was not generous, so Martina lost in the first round. But only a month later, she was able to present to her fans another, umpteenth final at Wimbledon, where she was defeated again by Conchita. Martina left with a tuft of grass as a precious souvenir of her long love affair with Wimbledon.
At Filderstadt, on October 14, she played her last match in Europe and on November 15 came her farewell, when she lost to Gabriela Sabatini in the first round of the New York Masters.
The hall of Madison Square Garden hosted an enormous tennis ball, with ten thousand signatures from fans all over the world, and a simple message: “Thanks for the memories“.