Inspirational Athletes

The Different Champion – Martina Navratilova

By Fiona Condron

“Champion the right to be yourself; dare to be different and to set your own pattern; live your own life and follow your own star.” (Wilfred Peterson)

In a difficult age where it seems that we all must embrace conformity to achieve success, Martina Navratilova, that record-breaking behemoth of the tennis world, illustrates to the world that we can, in fact, reach the great heights of our potential while remaining true to everything that we were born to be. Defying the expectations of her family, her sponsors and even her fans, Martina has fuelled a supremely successful career with the twin pillars of dedication and integrity, winning the hearts of millions and the respect of even her harshest critics.

It might be said that tennis was in Martina’s blood – it was undoubtedly a part of her heritage. Trained in the mechanics of the sport by her stepfather from a young age, little Martina was often found hitting balls with the wooden racket once owned by her grandmother, Agnes Semanska, who had played tennis for the Czechoslovakian Federation before the Second World War. At eight years old she reached the semi-finals of the very first tournament she participated in, and soon afterward began her career long winning streak, as yet on a local, and amateur, level. But a few months before her twelfth birthday, Martina’s life was to be shaken by events beyond her control, when Soviet forces rumbled into her native country to put an end to the liberal socialism she had known since birth. With a resolve she was to carry close to her heart in the future, in both her personal and professional life, Martina made the first of the many difficult choices she would face, and decided to leave home as soon as she possibly could.

In 1973, Martina took the step from the amateur to the professional tennis world, and that same year took her first trip to what must have been the almost mythical plenty of the United States of America. In the first manifestation of what would become a pattern in her life, Martina began to play passionate and creative tennis while refusing to allow the commotion of her personal life to distract her from her sporting endeavors. She won her very first professional singles title in Orlando, Florida in 1974, and came second only to Evonne Goolagong and Chris Evert in the Australian and French Opens on 1975. Meanwhile, she found herself enmeshed in a battle of a different shade, fighting tooth and nail with the country of her birth, the consistent interference of which in her burgeoning professional tennis career left her angry and frustrated. Finally, fed up of the Czech authorities threats to withhold visas from her because of her liberal views, Martina defected from her homeland, and in September 1975 received a Green Card to live in the country that she was beginning to think of as home. It would not be long, however, before this new homeland would express its disagreement with something that Martina held close to her heart.

Meanwhile, the transition to the new world did not come easily to Martina. Despite the many shortcomings of the land of her birth, Czechoslovakia was also the home of her family, her beloved mother, stepfather and sister. A passionate and sensitive person, Martina struggled without the support of those she cared about most. With her success on the courts of the American circuit leaving much to be desired, she struggled also with the overwhelming array of foodstuffs available in her new home, gaining weight and receiving criticism from various quarters – the journalist Bud Collins ungraciously named her the ‘Great Wide Hope’. But with the inner resolve of a true champion, Martina embarked on a gruelling fitness regime that was representative of her passion and dedication, and surrounded herself with friends and supporters who would help her not only to remain true to her deepest core in this strange land, but encourage her to find her truest self, and learn to adapt that self to master the challenges she would face. The next time she would face disapproval, she would not need to abandon her home to find peace. Martina was fast learning that her real home lay within, in a place protected from the slings and arrows of the world by the gentle strength of her own self-acceptance.

Integrity without the ability to adapt is mere stubbornness, and though Martina always possessed the dedication to help her succeed, she also knew when the time had come to embrace her flaws and turn them into strengths. Always passionate, Martina suffered at times with overwhelming emotions that were often her undoing on the tennis court. With the help of her new American friends, the future champion learned how to use her passionate nature to her own advantage, diverting her emotions from fruitless rages and focussing it upon the physical conditioning that would help make her a star. The ‘Great Wide Hope’ that fumbled onto the professional tennis courts would soon be replaced with a far more lean and focussed woman who was committed to her game and ready to win. “The difference”, she says “between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.” Martina was clearly becoming ever more committed to the game she always loved.

The eighteen-year-old tennis player’s loss in the 1975 semi-finals of the US Open to the pretty and personable Chris Evert was one of the early matches that characterized a professional rivalry and a personal friendship that would dominate the women’s tennis world for years to come. This relationship was a double-edged sword for Martina, as critics invariably sized her up against her opponent, who seemed everything that Martina herself was not. Chris was the attractive all-American girl who was everything that the emotional Czech was not, but as Chris said of her new rival, “even though I'd never heard of her, and couldn't pronounce or spell her name, I could tell she'd be trouble.” At the Wimbledon tournament of 1978, aged nearly twenty-two, Martina won her first Grand Slam title, beating Chris in three sets and reaching the World Number One spot for the first time.

Despite her new found control and dedication, Martina’s personal life continued to exert visible effects upon her professional ability. In the 1980 season leading up to her finally achieving a long sought after American citizenship, Martina won no Grand Slam titles. Shortly after her citizenship was finalised, Martina openly admitted for the first time to being bisexual, becoming one of the very first major sporting figures to do so. Though only sharing with the world something she had understood to be a central part of who she was since she was eighteen years old, this confession provoked widespread disapproval, not least from her much loved stepfather and coach, who despised the so-called ‘sickness’ she had admitted to, and remarked that it would have been preferable to him had his step-daughter been a prostitute rather than a lesbian. At a time when ‘coming out’ was not as common as it is today, many of Martina’s fans were unsettled by the news about her personal life, as were the professionals who paid many of her sponsorships. Though she earned, throughout the duration of her successful career, over twenty-one million dollars, the amount she has willingly forsaken because of her honesty regarding her personal life is in calculable. For some people, however, there are some things that money cannot buy, and for Martina, integrity is clearly one of these things.

There is little doubt that this openness suited Martina well, as it was at this time that her game began to blossom into the record-breaking tennis career that created so many new standards in the sport she loves so much. 1982 saw the beginning of her record six consecutive Wimbledon wins, and her first victory at the French Open. Though she lost the French title the following year, 1983 saw her achieve an 86-1 winning record, a winning percentage that is the highest ever achieved by any professional tennis player.

Breaking records and creating new ones is something that soon became a normal part of this champion’s life. Between 1982 and 1984, Martina lost only six singles matches. Throughout her career, she won an unsurpassed total of 167 singles titles, and in 2003, she won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon mixed double championships, making her – at forty-six years and six months – the oldest Grand Slam winner in history. Though she has only equalled Billie Jean King’s record of twenty Wimbledon victories and remains in second place to Margaret Court in terms of total Grand Slam wins (Martina has fifty-eight to Court’s sixty-two), Martina has the honor of being the oldest player to win a professional singles match in the Open Era, after claiming victory in a first round match at Wimbledon in 2004, at the age of forty-seven years and eight months. And though she retired from the singles world in 1994, she continues to win titles in both women’s and mixed doubles – her most recent win was in May 2006, when she won the mixed doubles title at the Internationaux de Strasbourg.

These victories were earned by a dedicated sportswoman, who remained focussed on success despite the turmoil of her personal life. The media spotlight still shone brightly upon her even after the novelty of her coming out had long since faded – her split with long term partner Judy Nelson in 1991 was painfully publicized, revealing what should have been private details about the couple’s lives together. Despite the anguish caused by such media intrusion and speculation about her personal life, Martina displayed her characteristic confidence in all that she is by playing herself in an episode of the popular NBC sitcom Will & Grace, which humorously portrays a number of gay characters. Regardless of the personal torment encountered because of the choices she has shared so openly with the world, Martina shows us that she retains a positive philosophy onlife, and can see the lighter side of all that has befallen her.

But, in truth, little has befallen the champion that she has not earned herself through a combination of honest hard work, passion and dedication. Ever graceful in the face of cruel judgment, Martina has carved a place in our hearts by remaining true to her life’s calling. Born into the world of tennis, she has persevered when others might have thrown up their hands at the fickleness of fate and chosen a less demanding route. This way, however, is not the way of champions, and whatever her critics may say against her, they surely cannot deny that she has reached supreme heights in her sport and earned without question the name of ‘champion’. But, as she explains, this is not the moniker she prefers: “I came to live in a country I love; some people label me a defector. I have loved men and women in my life; I've been labeled "the bisexual defector" in print. Want to know another secret? I'm even ambidextrous. I don't like labels. Just call me Martina.”

Inspirational Athletes