In a wide-ranging chat, tennis ace Martina Navratilova spoke about defection, telephone coaching and winning competitions. By Kannan Chandran
Looking lean and still with a keenly competitive attitude, the Czechoslovakian-born tennis great offered glimpses into a challenging past at a private club event. In town for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) which concludes today, Navratilova is a clear champion in terms of what she has achieved as a professional sportswoman.
She holds the record for the most singles and doubles titles, 167 and 177, respectively, including 20 Wimbledon and 18 Grand Slam titles.
“That’s a lot of tennis,” she states, to laughter from the room.
The modern day player she is often compared to, Serena Williams, has won 71 WTA titles, but has earned in excess of US$80 million in prize money. Navratilova’s haul for her various tournaments is around a quarter of that amount.
“We didn’t earn anywhere near the money that is paid out, today,” she points out.
But is Williams catching up?
“No,” is Navratilova’s blunt response. She quotes her winning statistics to volley home her point.
The left-handed player defected to the US in the summer of 1975 as a 19-year-old tennis player.
“Every time I wanted to play out of the country I had to apply for a visa.” She grew tired of this and decided to defect from Communist Czechoslovakia during the US Open, after her semi-final loss to Chris Everett. The idea was to do it quietly, and Navratilova went to the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York City after hours, completing the process at 10pm.
But the news was splashed in the Washington Post the following morning. That resulted in urgent phone calls from her birth country and promises to forget the incident if she returned before her visa expired.
Navratilova was stateless for six years, and worked without a coach.
“I regret that I had to leave my home country, but not that I did. And I do regret not having a coach earlier in my career.
“Back then players didn’t have coaches on the road, just at their clubs. My father was my coach, so he would coach me on the phone,” she recalls.
“I figured it out on my own.”
The Modern Game
Navratilova has seen the game change in a multitude of ways.
Racquets today offer many options for players. “Back when I was playing, we used one wooden racquet, and I remember we used the same strings from January to August. And I’ve only broken three racquets ever!”
The strings from her racquet will form part of a watch collection under the upcoming Avantist brand, which is expected to be launched next year. Riding the product endorsement route has been profitable for sports personalities and allows Navratilova to play catch up while at the same time keeping her name circulating in the right circles.
The push for performance has also seen the rise of increasingly sophisticated illegal performance enhancements substances. The prevalence of drugs in sport is something Navratilova is dead against. Commenting on Maria Sharapova’s recent run in with meldonium a substance banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, Navratilova adds that she doesn’t like how the system is set up.
“While cheats should be kicked out, you should still be deemed innocent until proven guilty. But today that’s not the case.”
Navratilova’s opinionated comments have seen her Twitter feed enjoy a healthy following. Her tweets are not just about tennis either. She’s particularly vocal about politics, and was quoted in 2007 as being ashamed of the US under President George W. Bush because unlike the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, Bush was elected.
So, it’s not surprising that this year’s US Presidential election should toss up some great tweets. While she’s aghast that Donald Trump is in the mix, she’s concerned at the “rabid support” he’s getting.
Photo: Jimmie48, Shutterstock