Martina Navratilova is sitting at a dockside restaurant in Florida, wearing worn-out jeans, a denim button-down shirt that hangs loosely at her waist and a 1619 cap that one of her five dogs has gnawed on. The hat, whose logo marks the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in the English colony of Virginia, is her favourite these days.
Athletic tape wraps a thumb and forefinger, not to buffer a tennis racket but to cover a skin condition that causes discolouration. She has not played in a while – the pandemic, aching joints, the usual excuses. A woman about Navratilova’s age, which is 64, says a star-struck “hello” on her way out of the restaurant. But a young waitress has no idea she had served a tuna-salad platter with a side of asparagus to someone who, four decades ago, was working to become the model for the modern, socially aware athlete.
During Navratilova’s heyday, in the 1980s, the world did not have much appetite for an outspoken, openly gay woman whose romantic partners sat courtside while she dominated her sport as no one else had – winning 18 Grand Slam singles titles and 59 in all, the last coming in 2006, when she was 49.
'I lived behind the Iron Curtain,' Martina Navratilova says, her eyes still capable of the glare that terrified opponents on the court. 'You really think you are going to be able to tell me to keep my mouth shut?'
Nowadays, that combination of success and fearlessness can make you an icon. Witness the empathy in recent days for Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam tournament winner who withdrew from the French Open, citing concerns for her mental health, after tournament organisers threatened to disqualify her if she did not appear at news conferences.
Navratilova – an enthusiastic supporter of Osaka and a vocal champion of causes including climate change and animal welfare – may simply have been born too soon. After paving the way for the modern athlete, Navratilova still has plenty to say, and the world seems more willing to listen now, although not everyone agrees with her.
She faced vehement backlash from LGBTQ advocates when she argued in the Sunday Times in support of rules for transgender female athletes competing against other women and was dropped from the advisory board of Athlete Ally, a group focused on supporting LGBTQ athletes. And still, Navratilova wishes Twitter and Instagram had been around back in her playing days, consequences be damned.
As a child in Prague, Navratilova read the newspaper every day. She studied the atlas, imagining where life could take her. She believes now that living out loud helped turn her into the greatest player on the planet. Defecting from Czechoslovakia at 18 saved her soul, she says, and living as an openly gay superstar athlete set her free.
She has no shortage of thoughts and opinions, usually expressed on social media, even if the next day she is providing expert analysis on the Tennis Channel from the French Open. "I lived behind the Iron Curtain," she says, her eyes still capable of the glare that terrified opponents on the court. "You really think you are going to be able to tell me to keep my mouth shut?" Whatever the political and social culture is buzzing on, Navratilova wants a piece of the action. She tosses Twitter grenades from the left, caring little about collateral, and sometimes self-inflicted, damage. Do not get her started on vaccine conspiracy theories. And she could not resist weighing in on the US Republican Party's Liz Cheney fracas.
Do people change over time or just become more like themselves? Navratilova – who lives in Miami with her wife, the Russian model Julia Lemigova, their two daughters, five Belgian Malinois dogs, turtles and a cat – certainly has not changed so much as the world has.
As a newly arrived immigrant, Navratilova was called “a walking delegate for conspicuous consumption” by the New York Times in 1975. The article elaborated: “She wears a raccoon coat over $30 jeans and a floral blouse from Giorgio’s, the Hollywood boutique. She wears four rings and assorted other jewellery, including a gold necklace with a diamond insert shaped in the figure 1. The usual status symbol shoes and purse round out the wardrobe. She owns a $20,000 Mercedes-Benz 450SL sports coupe.”
She was labelled a whiner and a crybaby (by Nora Ephron, no less) and a danger to her sport, because she was so much better than everyone else. After Navratilova criticised the government of her adopted country, Connie Chung suggested during a CNN interview that she return to Czechoslovakia. "She was always opinionated, and always principled," said Pam Shriver, Navratilova's close friend and longtime doubles partner. "It would have been so great for her and her fans not to have her voice filtered."
Mary Carillo, a tennis commentator and former player, remembers being next to Navratilova in the locker room as a teenager at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York, 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 said. “Like Martina’s game wasn’t ... what? Feminine? Fair? That drove me nuts.”
Name the qualities that allow a professional athlete to transcend the game. Publicly challenging authority? Being an openly gay superstar? Transforming how people play and train for their sport? Navratilova checked each box. She was a Wimbledon quarter-finalist in the summer of 1975, when her country’s communist government was deciding whether to allow her to participate in the US Open in New York later that year. She hated being unable to speak her mind or tell anyone of her sexual attraction to women.
When she received permission to leave for the tournament, she told her father, who was also her coach, that she would not be coming back. She did not tell her mother. After a semi-final loss to Chris Evert, she headed to a Manhattan immigration office to request asylum. Three hours later, she was free. By the time she woke up the next morning at the Roosevelt Hotel, the story of her defection was in the Washington Post.
Navratilova essentially changed not only the way people played the game but also the way tennis players – men and women – went about their business
Navratilova kept her sexuality private for six more years, because it might have disqualified her from becoming a US citizen. After she was naturalised, a sports reporter tracked her down following an exhibition match in Monte Carlo and told her he planned to write about an off-the-record conversation they’d had about her being a lesbian.
She urged him not to. She said she had been told it would be bad for women's tennis. The tour was managing a recent controversy with Billie Jean King, who had been sued for palimony by a former girlfriend. King at first denied the affair, then acknowledged it during a news conference with her husband at her side.
The reporter rejected Navratilova’s request, and after years of silence she found herself shoved from the closet. From that moment, though, Navratilova appeared with girlfriends and went about her life as she had always longed to. “I didn’t have to worry any more,” she says. “I didn’t have to censor myself.”
That September, Navratilova lost a third-set tiebreaker to Tracy Austin in the US Open final and cried during the awards presentation. The crowd roared for Navratilova that day, but rarely afterwards, even as she won the next three Grand Slam singles titles, and then 13 more after that. Along the way, Navratilova essentially changed not only the way people played the game but also the way tennis players – men and women – went about their business.
Don't believe it? Take a look at the physiques of male tennis players before Navratilova became Navratilova. That evolution began in the spring of 1981, when Navratilova was at the Virginia home of the basketball star Nancy Lieberman. She called Navratilova lazy and said she could train much harder. Cross-training was barely a concept then, but soon Navratilova was playing an hour of one-on-one basketball with Lieberman several times a week. She played tennis for up to four hours a day, began weight training with a female bodybuilder and sprinted daily at a local track.
A nutritionist put Navratilova on a diet high in complex carbohydrates and low in fatty proteins. Her physique went from borderline lumpy to sculpted. With the help of Renée Richards, a new coach who played professional tennis in the 1970s after undergoing gender-confirmation surgery, Navratilova learned a topspin backhand and a crushing forehand volley. Her game, powered by her lethal left-handed serve, became about aggression, about attacking the opponent from everywhere on the court.
In 1983, Navratilova played 87 matches and lost only once. In three Grand Slam finals, she lost zero sets and just 15 games. Soon Evert started cross-training, and the next generation of stars looked a lot more like Navratilova. They adopted her fierce style on the court.
Tennis careers generally ended about age 30 back then. Navratilova won the Wimbledon singles title at 34 in 1990 and continued to win doubles championships until 2006, becoming a groundbreaker in longevity. She has no doubt that her dominance on the court and her stridency off it worked hand in glove. “It lifts the pressure off you,” she says. “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 come in time, starting almost by accident. In 1991, when Magic Johnson announced he had been diagnosed with the virus that causes Aids, saying he was infected through sex with women, Navratilova was asked for her thoughts. She questioned why gay people with Aids did not receive similar sympathy, adding that if a woman caught the disease from being with hundreds of men, "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 against a Colorado ballot measure that would have outlawed any legislation in the state that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. She said President Bill Clinton had wimped out with his "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military. She demanded equal pay for women and bashed tennis parents who behaved badly.
The pushback reached critical mass in 2002 when a German newspaper quoted her saying policy decisions in the United States focus on money instead of “how much health, morals or the environment suffer”. When Chung took her to task on CNN, Navratilova shot back, “When I see something that I don’t like, I’m going to speak out, because you can do that here.”
Now her eyes light up when she discusses Coco Gauff, the 17-year-old budding tennis star who spoke forcefully at a Black Lives Matter rally near her Florida home last year after the murder of George Floyd. And when she thinks of Osaka – who wore a mask naming a black victim of racial violence before each of her matches at the US Open last year – Navratilova is certain the masks, and speaking out, helped Osaka win the championship. A protest doesn't take energy away from you, Navratilova explains; it does the opposite.
She never knows where the blowback will come from and knows that it won’t always be from the right. She will write and tweet about her belief that elite transgender female athletes should have gender-confirmation surgery before being allowed to compete in women’s events. “It can’t just be you declare your identity and that’s it,” she says. She feels similarly about intersex athletes who identify as women.
The Black Lives Matter sticker on her car garners the occasional heckle. Navratilova says someone recently saw a photograph of her in the 1619 cap, then announced he was pulling out of a tennis camp where she was scheduled to appear. That is fine, she says. She will keep wearing the cap. – New York Times