Here are just some words used to describe Martina Navratilova: icon, legend, trailblazer, pioneer, hero.
With 59 Grand Slam titles under her belt, she is unquestionably one of the greatest tennis players to ever play the game. Not only that, but she is credited with paving the way for a new generation of women athletes to be unapologetically themselves, to embrace physical strength, and to speak out for what they believe in.
She is, as it turns out, also partial to a bit of chit-chat about the weather. “It’s been raining like mad here,” she says. “Just going to the car earlier I got totally soaked. I had to completely change every layer of clothing.” As she speaks, her dogs can be heard howling in the background. “One starts and they all go,” she laughs.
Navratilova is speaking to me over the phone from her home in Florida. She has just finished addressing a virtual conference on gender equality in sport hosted by KPMG and 20x20, a movement aimed at championing girls and women in sports in Ireland.
In her keynote address, she speaks about everything from defecting from Czechoslovakia as a teenager to being one of the first openly gay athletes. She waxes lyrical about shattering glass ceilings, breaking barriers and being bold. Afterwards, she takes part in a panel discussion with Sonia O’Sullivan and Brian O’Driscoll about how women’s sports can build on the progress made over the last few years.
It doesn’t take long before our own conversation shifts to the power of sport and its ability to create meaningful change for the marginalised and oppressed. Sport, she says, has a way of exposing inequalities and bringing awareness to things such as sexism and racism.
“I look at this fight for equality for women and girls in sports as a great opportunity to push the ball forward across the board and beyond sports,” she says. “It’s about changing the social construct and subverting norms and perceptions.”
Navratilova has never been one to shy away from speaking out on these sorts of issues and says it’s “fantastic” that more athletes are using their voices to demand change.
In particular, she singles out tennis players Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff for speaking out about racism. At the US Open, Osaka wore face masks adorned with the names of victims of police brutality, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Gauff, meanwhile, delivered an impassioned speech at a Black Lives Matter protest in Florida earlier this summer.
“There and there, you have an example of young women of colour speaking out because they see what’s going on,” she says. “They’re privileged because they have achieved something and they’re respected for that. But as black women, they know what their mothers and fathers had to go through. So it’s great to see them taking the bull by the horn and taking that bullhorn.”
People coming out, it’s not a big deal anymore. That was the whole point of it. We didn’t want to come out but we had to because of the ostracisation, because of the prejudices, because of the unequal treatment under the law
She says social media has empowered many of these athletes to speak out as they can speak directly to their fans without fear of censorship. It’s a tool she wishes she had access to when she was an athlete.
“I know if I had Twitter 30 years ago, I would have been raising holy hell,” she laughs.
Martina Navratilova was born in Prague, in what was Czechoslovakia. Her parents divorced when she was a toddler and she later moved with her mother to Revnice, a small town outside the Czech capital. There, her mother remarried Miroslav Navratil.
Her maternal family once owned a 30-acre estate, but the land was seized when the communists took power in 1948. They were left with their house and, rather fortuitously, a red clay tennis court attached to the property. Martina and her family lived in a single room.
Tennis was in her blood. Her grandmother Agnes Semenska had once been a top-ranked tennis player in Czechoslovakia. Navratilova was four years old when she first picked up a racquet and started hitting a ball against a cement wall. When she was eight years old, she competed in her first tournament. A few years later, she won a national title, her first of many.
At 16 years old, she turned professional and travelled to the US for the first time. “My eyes were wide open then,” she told Sports Illustrated of her first impressions of America. “You know, the big highways and big cars.” There, she developed a fondness for Big Macs and pancakes, prompting the tennis writer Bud Collins to label her the “Great Wide Hope”. (Jibes about her weight and physical appearance were a constant throughout her career. Read old match reports and you will see her referred to as a “hefty girl” or a “husky girl”.)
By 1975, she had ascended the ranks to become one of the best tennis players in the world. That year, she contested the finals of both the Australian Open and the French Open, losing to Evonne Goolagong and Chris Evert, respectively. It was that year she decided to defect from Czechoslovakia and request political asylum from the US. She was just 18 years old and did so without notifying her family.
“Oh, the little idiot, why did she do that?” her grandfather told reporters, when he learned what she had done.
She told a press conference at the time that it was “strictly a tennis matter” and nothing to do with politics. She had little control over her tennis career and was forced to give over a percentage of her earnings to her home country. “I felt if I did not get out, I could not become the best tennis player in the world,” she told journalists. “I had to ask if I could play this tournament and that tournament. It was very frustrating.”
For years, she was effectively stateless. She was unable to see her parents and sister and spoke to them over the phone in calls she believed were monitored by the government.
From a professional point of view, however, it was transformative. In 1978, she won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, setting in motion a dazzling career that would see her win 18 Grand Slam singles titles and 41 Grand Slam doubles titles.
Navratilova’s achievements on the court would have been sufficient to secure her a place in the history books. But it was her actions off the court that elevated her to the status of an icon.
In 1981, Navratilova was outed as bisexual by the New York Daily News. Within a few years, she was an out and proud lesbian and one of the first openly gay athletes. By her own reckoning, the decision to come out cost her dearly. She lost out on lucrative sponsorship deals and her personal life came under intense media scrutiny.
In the decades since, there have been great strides made when it comes to the representation of LGBTQ+ athletes. She says it’s gratifying to see openly gay athletes such as US women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe being embraced by the public.
“It’s fantastic. It warms the heart. It’s sad that we had to fight the battle but we fought it and you see the fruits of our labour. People coming out, it’s not a big deal anymore. That was the whole point of it. We didn’t want to come out but we had to because of the ostracisation, because of the prejudices, because of the unequal treatment under the law. Things that heterosexual people take for granted were totally out of reach for us.
“My mom used to always say, ‘Why are you on the front line marching with the rainbow flag?’ I was like, ‘Well there’s nobody behind me. Somebody has got to lead.’ And now I don’t have to march anymore.”
Navratilova married her wife, Julia Lemigova, in 2014. She says that “life has gotten much better for us LGBTQ people around the world” but cautions that the community “still has a long way to go”.
“It’s still punishable by death in some countries. Certainly there are prison sentences in many countries. We’re talking about sports and people getting paid equally but people are still getting penalised for being who they are around the world so there are a lot of battles to be fought. I was just glad that I was able to do my part and help people be themselves and help move the laws forward in the right direction.
“One day we won’t have to say it. One day we won’t have to define ourselves or validate ourselves or say, ‘I’m gay, hear me roar!’ One day it won’t matter.”
Now 64, Navratilova continues to speak out on issues. Occasionally, she has drawn criticism for her views. Last year, she came under fire when she wrote that allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sports was “insane” and akin to “cheating”. As a result, she was dropped as an ambassador by Athlete Ally, an LGBTQ athletic advisory group. She subsequently made a documentary on the subject for the BBC and has since stated that her desire is to “include as many trans girls and women as possible while keeping a level playing field for girls and women in sports”.
To be revering and honouring people like [Margaret Court] by naming buildings or streets or airports after them, that’s not okay. That’s why we’re taking down some statues, right?
Elsewhere, she continues to be vocal about issues within tennis. Earlier this year, she and John McEnroe called for the Margaret Court Arena in Australia to be renamed. Court holds the all-time record for the most Grand Slam title, but has been a vocal critic of homosexuality and same-sex marriage in recent years.
As such, Navratilova believes it would be more appropriate for the arena to be renamed in honour of Evonne Goolagong-Cawley.
“Margaret will forever be a tennis champion. She’s just not a human rights champion. When you name buildings after people, it’s for the body of work. It’s not for one thing they did really well, it’s for who they are as human beings.
“The idea of still revering someone who is actively harming people just rubs me the wrong way. I don’t take it personally even though she made it personal 30 years ago. It’s not about me. I know who I am and I am okay with it. But there are still people struggling with their sexuality and their sexual orientation and this is not helpful.
“To be revering and honouring people like that by naming buildings or streets or airports after them, that’s not okay. That’s why we’re taking down some statues, right?”
She also doesn’t hold back when I ask her about Novak Djokovic. The men’s number one has had quite the 2020. During the summer, he organised a tennis tournament, at which he and several other top players contracted Covid-19. His plans for a breakaway tennis players’ association were also criticised when it was found the group was excluding women. (He has since said that he is open to women joining.)
“He thinks he’s doing the right thing,” says Navratilova. “I don’t agree with it but it’s his choice. It certainly didn’t seem to help his tennis. I think you’re better off . . . Not staying in your lane, but right now give your energy to that which helps you. That’s what I don’t understand. Purely from a logical point of view, when you are a champion tennis player, when you commit to the sport, your energy goes into that. Maybe to get away, you watch TV, maybe you do some woodworking, maybe you get into stitching shawls. That helps you relax and it gives you energy.
“But starting this association? This is not helpful on any level. Do that when you stop playing tennis but it’s controversial and not helpful. During Covid, you’re trying to divide us further when we should be trying to bring the game together and trying to figure out how to play tournaments without people getting sick and dying from Covid? Let’s stay with that problem rather than creating one we don’t need.”
Speaking of division, Navratilova is focusing her energy on the US presidential election. She has always been outspoken on politics and once said that she was ashamed and embarrassed of the US under former president George W Bush as she was of Czechoslovakia under the communist regime.
Last Friday, she posted a photo of herself dropping off her family’s ballots and wrote that her heart was “pounding like never before”. She says she is cautiously optimistic about the election, but accuses the Republican Party of engaging in voter suppression.
“[They] know that if everybody votes they don’t win,” she says. “They’re trying to cut corners everywhere they can while Trump is screaming about a rigged election. Yeah, you’re right, it is rigged. It’s rigged to help you win.
“I just hope that enough of us get out and vote and that this country gets into the solution and out of the problem and we can have a unified country in fighting this Covid, which we really need it to be.”
For her part, Navratilova has set aside a Saturday to drive voters to the polls. “It has been raining like crazy here so people are really going to have to make a sacrifice to get out and vote so I’m just trying to do my part,” she says.
There is no question that America is a deeply divided and damaged country. But Navratilova isn’t writing her adopted homeland off just yet. She believes it can still repair itself provided it acts quickly.
“I think it’s going to take some time to heal. It’s always easier to destroy than to fix things. It’s easier to destroy a building than to build it. You put in a couple of sticks of dynamite and that’s a 50-storey building down. Even when it took years to put up.”
“It’s going to be some rebuilding on a physical level and most of all an emotional level, but I think people need to look out of their bubble and open up their minds and hearts and see the big picture rather than what makes them feel good for that moment.”