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Friday September 5, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Thursday September 18, 2014 MYT 12:15:42 PM
by lee mei li
Tennis great Martina Navratilova is unassailable off court.
The unmatched Martina Navratilova, who has won 59 Grand Slam titles, talks about life, losses and luck.
Dressed in a cobalt-blue polo top and crisp white pants, the tennis extraordinaire walked along Tekka Market, Singapore, unrecognised, despite the many cameras that were closely-trained on her every expression.
Nevertheless, the entourage soon piqued the interest of a curious Caucasian passer-by, who asked if she was “anyone famous”. “That’s Martina Navratilova,” we said.
“Really? Wow, she’s getting old,” came the reply.
Navratilova does look her age; the tennis legend will be turning 58 in October. But there is that youthful glint in her eye, coupled with her bold strides and sturdy posture, that belie her age. Navratilova was in Singapore recently for a two-day promotional trip in the lead-up to the BNP Paribas Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Finals Singapore, to be held from Oct 17 to 26 at the country’s newly-launched Sports Hub.
The 59-time Grand Slam winner, who has aptly been named the most successful female tennis player of all time, will be competing in the inaugural WTA Legends event, held in conjunction with the finals.
With an illustrious career spanning four decades, Navratilova has often been asked about the secrets to her success. To this, she always quotes her idol, international Tennis Hall of Fame legend Billie Jean King: “Champions adjust.”
Even after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, Navratilova continued making a name for herself in the sport that she first fell in love with at the age of five.
Hailing from Revnice, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), Navratilova played in her first tennis tournament at the age of eight. By 15, she had won her first Czech national tennis championship.
The left-handed player never fails to acknowledge her stepfather, Miroslav Navratil’s role in contributing to her passion for the sport. In fact, she does this at almost every media opportunity, referring to Navratil as “father”.
“My family played tennis but it was my father, who’s really my stepfather, who introduced me to the sport. I started out just hitting the ball against the wall for two years. I would pretend I was Rod Laver and Billie Jean King. I had to wait till I could finally hold the racquet in one hand before playing on the court. I loved playing tennis and my father enabled me that. Without him, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said in her Czech-accented English, adding that her mother and stepfather gave her “a great foundation as a person and as a tennis player.”
Navratilova rarely speaks about her real father, who had committed suicide over the demise of his second marriage. Her parents divorced when she was three, and in 1962, her mother married Navratil, whose surname she later took on (adding the feminine suffix “ova”).
When asked if she was affected in any way by the changes in her family, Navratilova said:
“Even though my parents divorced, there was no drama in the family. I had a great childhood. I don’t think I ever missed out on anything. I lived in the same house as my grandparents and my parents and it was a great place to grow up in. We didn’t have much but we had enough. I was never hungry, I was never cold. My family took great care of me. I can only wish that childhood for every kid out there.”
Steady and strong
Navratilova first made her debut on the United States Lawn Tennis Association professional tour at 16. But it was not until she led her team to victory in the 1975 Federation Cup that she won international notice. That same year, she defected to the United States, leaving her family to pursue a career without abiding by the government’s restrictions on when and where she was allowed to play.
Nevertheless, Navratilova had a hard time coping without her family’s support. In the year following her defection, Navratilova played in the 1976 US Open and was knocked out in the first round.
“It was very difficult for me, being removed from my family and not being able to go back. I was feeling very lonely and I was burned out. I had been playing tennis non-stop for six months. I was so tired I didn’t touch my racquet for two weeks and figured I’d play my way into the US Open when it came around in summer, and I lost in the first round,” she recalled.
Instead of fretting over her loss, Navratilova moved on, and bought a house.
“I went to Dallas and decided to set my roots there. I found a small house. It had a little greenery in between the bedroom and the bathroom and it felt like you were outside even though your were inside and details like that helped me settle down. After that, I just thought about how I was going to win the following week.”
Since then, Navratilova has amassed an unmatched number of professional records.
At 21, she won her first Grand Slam title. She is still the only player to have held the World No. 1 title in both singles and doubles for more than 200 weeks. She was WTA’s Tour Player of the Year seven times and crowned by Sports Illustrated as one of the Top 40 Athletes of All-Time.
Despite retiring in 1994 at 37, Navratilova launched a comeback in 2000 and later became the oldest player, at 46, to ever win a Grand Slam title.
Seemingly born with a competitive streak, Navratilova revealed that even as a child, she was always going around “breaking her own records”. In an interview with digital site Makers, she said that she used to race no one but herself around the house, trying to beat her own time from the day before.
“In whatever that I do, I’m always being the best that I can be. It could be wood-working, or just playing ice hockey. I actually took stick-handling and skating lessons because I wanted to be the best ice hockey player that I could be. I never accepted any less than the best from myself and that’s what gets me out of bed every morning.”
Over the years, Navratilova remained unaffected by the unfavourable media coverage on her outspoken nature, as well as the complexities of being a gay woman.
Despite losing out on sponsorships, Navratilova dominated the top spot in tennis, which she owes to “a lot of hard work, great coaching, and some luck.”
Of the three elements, Navratilova attributes great coaching to be of the most important.
“You can have the best talent in the world but if you don’t have the right guidance, you won’t make it. I learned something from every one of my coaches; there is no one coach who knows everything. Whether it’s a team sport or individual sport, it’s still a team effort to get to the top.”
Power of passion
Though it has been more than 50 years since Navratilova first held her grandmother’s racket as a precocious five-year-old, the tennis champ is adamant that she is “still excited about playing the sport”.
“There has never been a day when I didn’t feel like playing,” she said.
As she put it, excelling in something you enjoyed doing is easy.
“No one forced me to play tennis; I wanted to play,” she said, before homing in on the issue of over-eager parents who forced the sport onto their children.
“Some children are forced into the professional field way too early. I know of parents who take their eight or nine-year-old children out of school just to play tennis five hours a day and that’s just wrong. I think every child should be active, seeing that they’re spending too much time on their iPads and computer games.
“But some parents can take it too far, thinking that their child is going to be the next Maria Sharapova or Roger Federer. I say be real, and don’t put too much expectation and pressure on the kids. Yes, it’s important to concentrate and try your hardest but it’s also important to have fun,” she said.
Her advice to young, aspiring sports enthusiasts is: “If you love it, great. If you don’t, do something else.”
Navratilova now stays in Florida with her fiancée, Julia Lemigova, and her two children.
In 2012, she took part in the reality show Dancing With The Stars as an extension of her role as the Health and Fitness ambassador for the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP). It was a rare treat to see the tennis pro decked out in heels and dresses. But participating in the show was her way of inspiring people over 50 to get outside their comfort zones.
Navratilova said that it was her battle with breast cancer that left her an empowered woman. She was declared cancer-free after undergoing seven months of radiotherapy in 2010.
“I did the radiation in France and all around me were women who were so much worse off. But what struck me was their positive thinking. Their strength really came through. They all had such a great attitude towards fighting the disease and it really put things into perspective for me.”
Video: Martina Navratilova on 'The Life of a Human Athletic Animal' at the Chicago Humanities Festival.
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