Martina Navratilova: A leader in her time, and for ours

It took time for western culture to catch up with her non-conformity, her individuality

Hana Mandlikova was an enthusiastic member of the Sparta tennis club in Prague at 12-years-old. She acted as ball girl when the ladies played league matches, and there was one young woman whose explosive style of play she admired more than anyone else's. But Mandlikova was shy, and couldn't bring herself to speak to her.

Eleven years later Mandlikova defeated her hometown hero, Martina Navratilova, in the 1985 US Open final, when the latter was at the peak of her powers. Their match-ups were too few to earn the kind of rivalry immortalised by history.

Mandlikova's Martina moments were squeezed in between Navratilova's famed decade-long tug-of-war with Chris Evert and the old-timer-newcomer smackdown with Steffi Graf. And yet for a couple of years in the mid-80s, Mandlikova spurred her idol to some extraordinary displays.

There was a spectacular semi-final in the 1985 Virginia Slims Championships – where Mandlikova’s ability to stand up to her former countrywoman’s powerful serve sparked fireworks – and a four-set showcase of Navratilova’s shotmaking in the same tournament the following year. Three months later, they met in the 1986 Wimbledon final.


'How many more Wimbledons do you want?'

Navratilova practically held the lease on Centre Court. She had won six singles titles, the previous four of them in a row. The seven doubles titles were mere window dressing. But Mandlikova broke her first service game, and was 5-2 up at the ball change, Navratilova biting a lip as she walked back to her seat. In the next game, when her opponent hit a backhand return down the line, Navratilova kissed her fingers in appreciation. And then – as if enough was enough – the world No 1 started raining down serves like Jove hurling lightning.

What followed was an exhibition of Navratilova’s peak serve-and-volley game. She covered the net with the apparent wingspan of a Boeing 737; she leapt for the ball like an exploding star. There were impossible pick-ups from her ankles, catapulting cross-court runs and devastating deep-court volleys. Mandlikova kept fighting but she could not fight the hurricane.

The following year, Navratilova took her eighth Wimbledon title, against Graf, the 18-year-old wunderkind who had defeated her at Roland Garros and was supposed to herald the end of her reign. Graf kept fighting, too, but the woman 12 years her senior overwhelmed her. As they waited for the trophy presentation, Graf joked: "How many more Wimbledons do you want?"

“Nine is my lucky number,” said Navratilova. She got what she wanted.

You cannot fight the hurricane. And that’s what Navratilova was destined to be, from the moment she took Evert to three sets in the 1975 French Open, or perhaps the one later that year, when she left her family to become a teenage immigrant with an eastern European accent in a country that didn’t much care for outsiders. It’s what she promised when she served out to love to win her first grand slam in 1978, beating Evert for only the fifth time in 25 attempts, and what she proved in 1984 with her 74-match winning streak, the longest in tennis history.

It took time for western culture to catch up with Navratilova's non-conformity

Navratilova's prominence has never been just about records and titles, although the pure mathematics of her achievements – 167 singles titles, 177 doubles titles, 59 majors – broke every pre-existing algorithm. The magnitude of her career cannot simply be expressed by its longevity, even if she beat the 19-year-old world No 1 Monica Seles in the Paris Open when she was almost twice her age, or lifted the US Open mixed doubles trophy when she was a year off her half-century and her partner, Bob Bryan, looked like a nephew who had come round to help her set up her computer.

Navratilova possessed a power that upended everything; it blew through a world that wasn’t ready and didn’t know what to call it. We recognise it now as identity – an authenticity of self that our zeitgeist encourages and rewards. But for most of Navratilova’s 31-year career, her individuality – the one that inspired her to value physical strength and look more muscular than a woman was supposed to, to live openly with a female partner and to speak out for what she believed – carried a personal cost.

It’s easy to forget the support and sponsorships she lost, and the suspicion and vilification she attracted, for being unapologetically herself – especially now she is an international treasure, a beloved pundit, a recurring cameo as Gwyneth Paltrow’s lover on a Netflix comedy drama. When Navratilova came out in 1981 it was to a world that associated gay people with Aids and was largely comfortable in its endemic, institutional homophobia. When she criticised the US government, it was to a sporting fanbase that demanded all-American heroes and a media that labelled her unpatriotic.

It took time for western culture to catch up with Navratilova’s non-conformity. Her endurance and undying passion to play tennis enriched her legacy, because the longer she continued, the more people were able to appreciate and understand her: the humour and warmth, the soft centre of a personality they once took for severe.

Still, her most inspiring attribute has long been apparent. Mandlikova once spoke of her vivid memory of discovering her hero was leaving Czechoslovakia, never to come back. “That,” she said, “that was braveness.” It was the quality that made Navratilova a leader in her time, and for ours.

Roll of honour

18 grand slam singles titles

Australian Open: 1981, 1983, 1985

French Open: 1982, 1984

Wimbledon: 1978, 1979, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1990

US Open: 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987

167 singles titles

332 weeks ranked world No 1

31 grand slam women’s doubles titles

Australian Open: 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989

French Open: 1975, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988

Wimbledon: 1976, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986

US Open: 1977, 1978, 1980, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1990

10 grand slam mixed doubles titles

Australian Open: 2003

French Open: 1974, 1985

Wimbledon: 1985, 1993, 1995, 2003

US Open: 1985, 1987, 2006

- Guardian