Martina Navratilova is unquestionably one of the greatest sportswomen in history, and has a strong claim to the title of greatest female tennis player of all time. She is also an individual of great courage, who has had to overcome prejudice and repression from political forces of the left and right in order to express herself freely and achieve sporting greatness.
The young prodigy
Born Martina Subertova on October 18, 1956, in Prague, Czechoslovakia1, her first home was a ski lodge in the Krkonose Mountains, where her father, Miroslav Subert, was a ski instructor. Her parents split up when she was still a small child, and she and her mother moved to Revnice in the countryside of Bohemia.
Tennis ran in her family; Martina's grandmother Agnes Semanska had been an international tennis star. So Martina took up the sport when very young, entering her first tournament at the age of eight. Her first coach was her stepfather Mirek Navratil, who married her mother in 1962 - after which Martina adopted his surname, adding the feminine suffix "-ova"
The young Martina reached the semi-finals of her first tournament, and her prodigious talent soon attracted the attention of the Czech authorities. She was coached by George Parma, one of Czechoslovakia's greatest tennis players of the Sixties.
She became a tennis professional in 1973, and in that year she visited the United States for the first time. Playing in a tournament in Akron, Ohio, she was beaten by Chris Evert. The match began a rivalry that would last for much of her career.
Crisis in Czechoslovakia
These were difficult times in Navratilova's homeland. During the Sixties the Czech head of state Alexander Dubcek had tried to introduce a liberal form of socialism in Czechoslovakia, and, in doing so had increasingly antagonised the Soviet Union. On August 21, 1968, the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia and forcibly imposed an orthodox communist regime.
In the years that followed, Martina Navratilova frequently came into conflict with the new regime in Czechoslovakia. She offended the authorities by publicly expressing opinions that conflicted with the official line, and she was warned that further "offences" would lead to her being denied the exit visas she needed in order to travel outside Czechoslovakia.
Finally, in August 1975, Navratilova decided she'd had enough of the Czech regime. She defected to the United States during the US Open Championship. Within a month she was awarded a "Green Card", entitling her to permanent residence in the USA.
It was a brave move; it meant that she was cut off from her family. They could not leave Czechoslovakia to visit her, and Martina would have been arrested had she returned to her old homeland. She was unable to see her family for four years following her defection.
During those early days in the USA, Martina's form suffered; she embraced the American way of eating a little too enthusiastically, and rapidly gained weight.
But she soon got back in shape, and on July 8 1978 she beat Chris Evert to win the Wimbledon ladies' singles title for the first time. This success earned Navratilova the number one position in the Women's Tennis Association's global rankings. She retained the Wimbledon ladies' singles title in 1979.
Battling the bigots
Navratilova's prominence in the tennis world prompted the tabloid press to take an interest in her private life. She had often been seen in the company of the proudly lesbian novelist Rita Mae Brown, and newspapers began to speculate about the nature of their relationship. Martina ended the speculation by confirming that the papers had guessed right: she was a lesbian and she and Brown were a couple.
This openness about her sexual orientation earned her much respect, but also cost her a great deal of money in lost sponsorship, with some potential sponsors fearing a backlash from intolerant consumers if they associated their company's name with someone who was openly homosexual.
However, Martina was able to gain the unequivocal acceptance of the US immigration service. On July 21, 1981, she became an American citizen.
On top of the world
In the early Eighties, Navratilova began to dominate the world of women's tennis as never before. In 1982 she won a phenomenal 29 tournaments (15 singles and 14 doubles events).
Those victories included a triumph in the 1982 women's singles championship at Wimbledon. During the same year, she became the first sportswoman ever to win a million US dollars in a single year.
Martina dominated the Wimbledon ladies' championship throughout the mid-Eighties. She won an unparalleled six consecutive singles titles, from 1982 to 1987 inclusive. She also retained her world number one ranking until 1987, when Steffi Graf finally took over the top spot.
During this period, two women became particularly important in Navratilova's life, for very different reasons. Her great rivalry with Chris Evert intensified. Their styles of play were very different. Navratilova favoured an aggressive, serve-and-volley approach, frequently rushing to the net. Evert preferred to spend more time by the baseline, relying more on accuracy than aggression. Martina was fierce and emotional; Chris was calm and cerebral.
Evert was usually the crowds' favourite. Not only was she the underdog, she was also the more conventionally beautiful of the two, and didn't have to battle against homophobia to gain the respect she deserved. But the antipathy she received from some quarters only seemed to spur Navratilova on to ever greater success. It all led to many memorable clashes on courts all over the world, which continued until Evert's retirement in 1989.
The other great influence in Martina's life was the new partner who had entered her private life. After splitting up with Brown, Navratilova began a long-term relationship with another writer, Judy Nelson. Judy was often in the crowd to cheer Martina on when she was at the height of her powers, and Navratilova would often run into the crowd to hug her lover after winning tournaments.
These public displays of affection sometimes seemed to discomfort television commentators. At a loss for an "acceptable" way to describe Martina and Judy's relationship, they would coyly refer to Judy as Martina's "friend" rather than as her partner or girlfriend.2
In 1990, Navratilova won the Wimbledon singles title for the ninth time, breaking a record that had stood since 1938. She has also won 10 Wimbledon doubles championships, and her total of 19 Wimbledon championship victories has been bettered only by her friend and one-time ladies' doubles partner, Billie-Jean King. 3
Martina continued to compete at the highest level well into her thirties. On February 21, 1993, at the age of 36, she beat the then world number one Monica Seles in the final of the Paris indoor tournament. She won her last singles title on February 20, 1994, in the same competition.
Having already announced her intention to retire, Navratilova made a determined attempt to win one last Wimbledon singles title. She came within one match of doing so, but finally lost a closely contested final to Conchita Martinez. Martina retired from regular competition on November 15, 1994, after losing to Gabriela Sabatini in the New York Masters. She had won a total of 167 singles competitions - a world record.
Navratilova has won over $20 million in the course of her brilliant career, but wealth hasn't made her complacent. She has campaigned extensively for gay and lesbian rights, for animal welfare and for environmental causes. In April 2000 she returned to competitive tennis, and she still hopes to win another Wimbledon title via one of the doubles competitions.