FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Martina Navratilova sat at a dockside restaurant in Florida this spring, carrying worn-out denims, a denim button-down shirt that hung loosely at her waist and a 1619 cap that certainly one of her 5 canines had gnawed on. It’s her favourite hat nowadays.
Athletic tape wrapped a thumb and forefinger, not to buffer a tennis racket, however to cowl a pores and skin situation that causes discoloration. She has not performed shortly — the pandemic, aching joints, the same old excuses.
A girl about Navratilova’s age, which is 64, mentioned a star-struck “hello” on her means out of the restaurant. But a younger waitress had no concept she had served a tuna salad platter with a aspect of asparagus to somebody who, 4 a long time in the past, was working to grow to be the mannequin for the trendy, socially conscious athlete.
During Navratilova’s heyday within the 1980s, the world didn’t have a lot urge for food for an outspoken, brazenly homosexual girl whose romantic companions sat courtside whereas she dominated her sport as nobody else had — profitable 18 Grand Slam singles titles and 59 in all, the final coming in 2006, when she was 49.
Navratilova received the U.S. Open blended doubles title with Bob Bryan in 2006, when she was virtually 50.Credit…Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Nowadays, that mixture of success and fearlessness can make you an icon. Witness the empathy in current days for Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam event winner who withdrew from the French Open, citing considerations for her psychological well being, after event organizers threatened to disqualify her if she didn’t seem at information conferences.
Navratilova — an enthusiastic supporter of Osaka and a vocal champion of causes together with local weather change and animal welfare — could merely have been born too quickly. After paving the way in which for the trendy athlete, Navratilova nonetheless has lots to say, and the world appears extra keen to pay attention now, although not everybody agrees together with her.
She confronted vehement backlash from L.G.B.T.Q. advocates when she argued within the Sunday Times of London in help of guidelines for transgender feminine athletes competing in opposition to different girls, and was dropped from the advisory board of Athlete Ally, a bunch centered on supporting L.G.B.T.Q. athletes. And nonetheless, Navratilova needs Twitter and Instagram had been round again in her enjoying days, penalties be damned.
As a toddler in Prague, Navratilova learn the newspaper every single day. She studied the atlas, imagining the place life might take her. She believes now that residing out loud helped flip her into the best participant on the planet. Defecting from Czechoslovakia at 18 saved her soul, she mentioned, and residing as an brazenly homosexual famous person athlete set her free.
She has no scarcity of ideas and opinions, normally expressed on social media, even when the subsequent day she is offering knowledgeable evaluation on The Tennis Channel from the French Open.
Navratilova talked with sportscaster Ted Robinson whereas calling a match on the French Open.Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times
“I lived behind the Iron Curtain,” she mentioned, her eyes nonetheless able to the glare that terrified opponents on the courtroom. “You really think you are going to be able to tell me to keep my mouth shut?”
Whatever the political and social tradition is buzzing on, Navratilova desires a bit of the motion. She tosses Twitter grenades from the left, caring little about collateral, and generally self-inflicted, injury. There was this on the Republican Party final month. Do not get her began on vaccine conspiracy theories. And she couldn’t resist weighing on the Liz Cheney fracas.
Do individuals change over time or simply grow to be extra like themselves? Navratilova — who lives in Miami together with her spouse, the Russian mannequin Julia Lemigova, their two daughters, 5 Belgian Malinois canines, turtles and a cat — definitely has not modified a lot because the world has.
Navratilova and her spouse, Julia Lemigova, chatted with Britain’s Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, within the royal field at Wimbledon in 2019.Credit…Pool picture by Ben Curtis
As a newly arrived immigrant, Navratilova was referred to as “a walking delegate for conspicuous consumption” by The New York Times in 1975. The article elaborated:
She wears a raccoon coat over $30 denims and a floral shirt from Giorgio’s, the Hollywood boutique. She wears 4 rings and various different jewellery, together with a gold necklace with a diamond insert formed within the determine 1. The regular standing image footwear and purse spherical out the wardrobe. She owns a $20,000 Mercedes-Benz 450SL sports activities coupe.
She was labeled a whiner and a crybaby (by Nora Ephron, no much less) and a hazard to her sport, as a result of she was so significantly better than everybody else.
After Navratilova criticized the federal government of her adopted nation, Connie Chung instructed throughout a CNN interview that she return to Czechoslovakia.
“She was always opinionated, and always principled,” mentioned Pam Shriver, Navratilova’s shut pal and longtime doubles associate. “It would have been so great for her and her fans not to have her voice filtered.”
Mary Carillo, the previous participant and tennis commentator, remembers being subsequent to Navratilova within the locker room as an adolescent on the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills and noticing sculpted arms “with raised veins and sinewy muscle barely holding them all together.”
“She was smart and quick and funny and emotional, with a game so strong and assertive that it seemed like fans automatically felt the need to cheer for the woman across the net,” Carillo mentioned. “Like Martina’s game wasn’t … what? Feminine? Fair? That drove me nuts.”
Name the qualities that permit knowledgeable athlete to transcend the sport. Publicly difficult authority? Being an brazenly homosexual famous person? Transforming how individuals play and practice for his or her sport? Navratilova checked every field.
She was a Wimbledon quarterfinalist in the summertime of 1975, when her nation’s Communist authorities was deciding whether or not to permit her to take part within the United States Open in New York later that 12 months. She hated being unable to converse her thoughts, or inform anybody of her sexual attraction to girls.
Navratilova throughout the 1975 U.S. Open.Credit…Focus on Sport, through Getty Images
When she acquired permission to go away for the event, she advised her father, who was additionally her coach, that she wouldn’t be coming again. She didn’t inform her mom.
After a semifinal loss to Chris Evert, she headed to a Manhattan immigration workplace to request asylum. Three hours later, she was free. By the time she awoke the subsequent morning on the Roosevelt Hotel, the story of her defection was in The Washington Post.
Navratilova stored her sexuality non-public for six extra years, as a result of it might need disqualified her from changing into a U.S. citizen. After she was naturalized, a sports activities reporter tracked her down following an exhibition match in Monte Carlo and advised her he deliberate to write about an off-the-record dialog they’d had about her being a lesbian.
She urged him not to. She mentioned she had been advised it could be dangerous for ladies’s tennis. The tour was managing a current controversy with Billie Jean King, who had been sued for palimony by a former girlfriend. King at first denied the affair, then acknowledged it throughout a information convention together with her husband at her aspect.
The reporter rejected Navratilova’s request, and after years of silence, she discovered herself shoved from the closet. From that second on, although, Navratilova appeared with girlfriends and went about her life as she had at all times longed to.
“I didn’t have to worry anymore,” she mentioned. “I didn’t have to censor myself.”
Navratilova greeted Judy Nelson, her girlfriend for a number of years, as she entered the courtroom at Wimbledon in 1988.Credit…Professional Sport/Popperfoto, through Getty Images
That September, Navratilova misplaced a third-set tiebreaker to Tracy Austin within the U.S. Open ultimate and cried throughout the awards presentation. The crowd roared for Navratilova that day, however not often afterward, at the same time as she received the subsequent three Grand Slam singles titles, after which 13 extra after that. Along the way in which, Navratilova basically modified not solely the way in which individuals performed the sport, but additionally the way in which tennis gamers — women and men — went about their enterprise.
Don’t imagine it? Take a have a look at the physiques of male tennis gamers earlier than Navratilova turned Navratilova.
That evolution started within the spring of 1981, when Navratilova was on the Virginia Beach house of the basketball star Nancy Lieberman. She referred to as Navratilova lazy and mentioned she might practice a lot more durable.
Cross-training was barely an idea then, however quickly Navratilova was enjoying an hour of one-on-one basketball with Lieberman a number of occasions per week. She performed tennis for up to 4 hours a day, started weight coaching with a feminine bodybuilder and sprinted day by day at a neighborhood monitor.
A nutritionist put Navratilova on a weight loss plan excessive in advanced carbohydrates and low in fatty proteins. Her physique went from borderline lumpy to sculpted.
With the assistance of Renée Richards, a brand new coach who performed skilled tennis within the 1970s after present process transition surgical procedure Navratilova discovered a topspin backhand and a crushing forehand volley. Her sport, powered by her deadly left-handed serve, turned about aggression, about attacking the opponent from in all places on the courtroom.
In 1983, Navratilova performed 87 matches and misplaced solely as soon as. In three Grand Slam finals, she misplaced zero units and simply 15 video games.
Navratilova with the 1983 U.S. Open trophy.Credit…Leo Mason/Popperfoto, through Getty Images
Soon Evert began cross-training, and the subsequent era of stars regarded much more like Navratilova. They adopted her fierce type on the courtroom.
Tennis careers typically ended round age 30 again then. Navratilova received the Wimbledon singles title at 34 in 1990 and continued to win doubles championships till 2006, changing into a groundbreaker in longevity.
She has little doubt that her dominance on the courtroom and her stridency off it labored hand in glove. “It lifts the pressure off you,” she mentioned. “It’s like having a near-death experience. Once you go through it, you embrace life.”
The social and political commentary, and the requisite blowback, would are available time, beginning virtually by chance.
In 1991, when Magic Johnson introduced he had been identified with the virus that causes AIDS, saying he was contaminated via intercourse with girls, Navratilova was requested for her ideas. She questioned why homosexual individuals with AIDS didn’t obtain comparable sympathy, including that if a lady caught the illness from being with a whole bunch of males, “they’d call her a whore and a slut, and the corporations would drop her like a lead balloon.”
Imagine dropping that in your Twitter feed.
In 1992, she campaigned in opposition to a Colorado poll measure that might have outlawed any laws within the state that prohibited discrimination based mostly on sexual orientation. She mentioned President Bill Clinton had wimped out together with his “don’t ask, don’t tell” coverage for gays within the navy. She demanded equal pay for ladies and bashed tennis dad and mom who behaved badly.
The pushback reached vital mass in 2002 when a German newspaper quoted her saying coverage selections in America concentrate on cash as a substitute of “how much health, morals or the environment suffer.”
When Chung took her to activity on CNN, Navratilova shot again, “When I see something that I don’t like, I’m going to speak out because you can do that here.”
Navratilova at a homosexual rights march in Washington D.C. in 2000.Credit…Shawn Thew/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Now her eyes mild up when she discusses Coco Gauff, the 17-year-old budding tennis star who spoke forcefully at a Black Lives Matter rally close to her Florida house final 12 months after the homicide of George Floyd. And when she thinks of Osaka — who wore a masks naming a Black sufferer of racial violence earlier than every of her matches on the U.S. Open final 12 months — Navratilova is for certain the masks, and talking out, helped Osaka win the championship. A protest doesn’t take vitality away from you, Navratilova defined, it does the alternative.
She by no means is aware of the place the blowback will come from, and is aware of that it received’t at all times be from the best. She will proceed to write and tweet about her perception that elite transgender feminine athletes ought to have transition surgical procedure earlier than being allowed to compete in girls’s occasions.
“It can’t just be you declare your identity and that’s it,” she mentioned. She feels equally about intersex athletes who determine as girls.
The Black Lives Matter sticker on her automobile garners the occasional heckle. Navratilova mentioned somebody lately noticed a photograph of her within the 1619 cap, then introduced he was pulling out of a tennis camp the place she was scheduled to seem.
That is ok, she mentioned. She will preserve carrying the cap.