Martina the alien

Martina Navratilova

Undici in partnership with Puma Eyewear presents #NoCage, a collection of 12 stories of past and contemporary athletes that have changed the history of sports, overcoming the barriers and obstacles in their path thanks to determination and willpower.

Brought up by women, with a divorced mother, and divorced grandmother, the girl who looked like a boy – lean as a bread stick with very short hair –, always rejected dolls, preferring cars. At nine, she also rejected ice hockey, running, skiing and football, and decidedly took up the family racket, beginning her own personal war against the wall behind the house and the difficulties of a ballistic weapon that was too heavy, and had to be wielded with two hands. At least until her first teacher, George Parma, did not begin to refine her approach after the initial teachings of her grandmother Agnes Semanska, who had been the nation’s number 2 player before the Second World War.

Ten years on, the left-handed Martina also discarded her father’s surname (a former ski instructor, who committed suicide) Šubertová, becoming Navratilova – an adaptation of her stepfather’s name, Miroslav Navratil, who became her first official coach, while her mother Jana, a former ski instructor, gymnast and tennis player, oversaw her physical preparation. At nineteen, Martina rejected her country, then called Czechoslovakia, which wanted to bar her from its borders in order to prevent her from a real professional career, threatening to force her to return to school because she was “too westernized”. That gesture of rebellion, which saw her cross the threshold of the immigration office’s door to request political asylum in a country so different from her own, right after the US Open in 1975 and at the climax of the Cold War, would cost her dearly. Her home country relegated her first triumph at Wimbledon in 1978 to an unnamed, three-line mention in the news, although the proud nationalistic tam-tam [that echoed her victory] continued to reach its people and to make their poor, submissive hearts race.

1978 Wimbledon Ladies’ Singles Final: Martina Navratilova vs Chris Evert

Everyone is a slave of his own destiny and this Bohemian heroine was born to rebel: left-handed, with a one-armed backhand, she played a service-volley that was all fantasy and fireworks, while her masculine movements contrasted with her incredibly fine sensitivity. She reacted to the impact [of the States] with the opulence of the Yankees, rejecting good US manners by gorging on the overflowing refrigerator of her new reality, relying on strong, driven, much older female friendships, including Billie Jean King – a pioneer of all civil battles,  beginning with the women’s liberation movement –, golfer Sandra Haynes and writer Rita Mae Brown, leader of the female homosexual movement in the US. Navratilova would go on to marry Mae Brown in Washington, but they would later divorce amidst a whirlwind of controversy as her spited partner revealed personal details of their love story in revenge.

How many times was Martina shamed, how many times would it have been easier for her to make a compromise, or a less drastic choice? Receiving her new passport in 1981, for the US media she became quite “the great, big hope.” Today, her rebellion would be a positive symbol, but back then, it was a disruptive gesture, even on a sexual note, which was further compounded by her guest status as an intruder from an “enemy” country, as all Eastern European countries and satellites of the USSR were seen. A disconcerting guest, she was both very good and the very antithesis of “America’s Sweetheart”, Chris Evert, who was all glitter and gentle movements, from a good family and traditional affairs of the heart.

Moreover, Chrissie’s reactions were controlled and prissy, while her game from the backcourt was faultless. In contrast, Martina was unpredictable and not always composed, beginning with her usage of a strange, new language. As delicate and feminine was Chrissie, Martina was just as masculine. “She revolutionized the game with her superb athleticism and aggressiveness, taking the physical factor to a whole new level, as well as the preparation systems behind it, adding the long distance running, gym and basketball to tennis training”, Evert would later say of Navratilova, honoring one of the sport’s most famous rivalries played out over 80 matches (43 victories to Evert and 37 for Martina). And while the gossips giggled about Renée Richards, a former professional tennis player and dentist who had a sex change and acted as her coach, and whispered about former basketball player Nancy Lieberman, who was openly gay and had created the player’s first tennis team, the dietician Robert Haas transformed the champion into a vegetarian during an era when the classic athlete was a declared carnivore.

Had she not been so spontaneous and sincere, Navratilova could have masked her choices, especially her sexual choices, at least in front of the family who finally visited her in her new country and stayed in Fort Worth for a while, only to decide, shortly after, to return to the more familiar Revnice. But her strength was also her honesty, and the uncertainties of her delicate ego made her more loved than many other, more “politically correct” athletes. And so it was, in 1986, when Martina finally returned home, to Prague, dressed in stars and stripes and ready to participate in a Fed Cup match, that she wept along with the stadium that she could finally embrace after eleven long years of exile.


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As it was in 1991, when she ended her long relationship with Judy Nelson, who dragged her through a ruinous court case, flaunting a video recording in which Martina gave her an engagement ring, and vowed to treat her like a real wife. And so it was when, at the 2014 US Open, live on the giant screen in the central field, she kneeled and movingly asked for the hand of Julia Lemigova, who she married soon after. And above all, her fans suffered with the prodigious left-hander as towards the end of her career: as she dueled – often in vain – against the younger Steffi Graf; when she won her ninth seal at Wimbledon at the age of 33 (surpassing Helen Wills); when she blatantly failed her tenth attempt at her 37th victory (in the incredible final with Conchita Martinez); when she rebelled against her age and came back to play doubles, becoming the oldest queen of the Slam, taking the mixed doubles title in 2003 at Wimbledon at the age of 46 years and 8 months, to match the 20 Championships victories (singles, doubles and mixed included) of her mentor, Billie Jean King. And then, as she ended a singles match 6-0 6-1 against Catalina Castano at Wimbledon in 2004, at 47 years and eight months, as the oldest player in the Open. And finally, winning her last doubles tournament, match number 177 – a record unto itself – in the mix at the US Open 2006, a month before her 50th birthday, with which she added another record to her 167 singles titles (18 Slam).

Gisela Dulko vs. Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon 2004

Martina has rebelled against despotic power, customs, rules, her age, comfortable choices and even against evil. She responded to the breast cancer that struck her in 2010, by announcing her battle to the world, and winning. She has also rebelled against human possibilities, being forced to abandon her ascent of Kilimanjaro in 2010, ending up in a hospital bed with pulmonary edema. And she is always ready for the next civil battle, and is always politically engaged, always determined to have her say in favor of minorities and the weaker party. She is unique, as champion and as a woman. The strongest tennis player of all time, the last one to have tamed any ball, flying right up to the net to close the point with her volleys. Intelligent and imperfect, inimitable and fascinating. Martina Navratilova.