IT'S the voice — it's always the first thing that strikes you about Martina Navratilova. That signature voice that leaves you wondering, 'How can a woman of such athleticism and natural grace sound like a cartoon character — a mouse, or some exotic bird?'
But there's a bigger mystery surrounding Navratilova these days: how can she, at 47, still successfully compete at the professional level? When she retired in 1994 as the winningest player of the Open era, we thought we had seen the last of her feathery touch volleys and booming overheads. She had earned more than $20 million in prize money and lofted every trophy worth holding before leaving the game on her own terms. So why risk a comeback five years later? What could this woman have left to prove?
Besides becoming the oldest WTA tournament winner, in 2003 Navratilova won two mixed-doubles Grand Slam titles (her Wimbledon win was her 20th title there, tying her with Billie Jean King for the most), reached the final of the women's doubles at the U.S. Open, and extended her unbeaten streak in Fed Cup competition to 39 matches, helping to save the U.S. from a sweep by the French team in the final. Tennis caught up with Navratilova to ask about her improbable return to the competitive game. Her little voice, bordering on shrill when she is excited, was vintage Martina, but always in the service of articulating a compelling perspective on life and her sport.
As it appeared in the print edition
F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "There are no second acts in American lives." What do you think of that?
Actually, I'm hoping there's a third act, because this one is still about tennis, and I'm hoping there will be more to come when I finish playing. I don't know when that will be, though. If I do play in 2004, it definitely will be my last year. My heart will tell me. One thing, though. My results won't be the determining influence. If playing or not had to do with results, I would have quit after Wimbledon this year. That would have been a nice place to stop. But I committed myself to my doubles partner (Svetlana Kuznetsova) for the year, and our goal all along was to get into the WTA Championships.
“For me, Leander (Paes) is the boss. He can do whatever he wants. My job is to make sure I hold my own against the girl. I usually feel confident about that. That leaves Leander free to do his thing. He's so fast it's just ridiculous. He's the ideal mixed-doubles partner because he covers a lot of ground and hits a big ball. He also protects my serve well, even if I'm throwing in puff-balls, he'll get the job done. And that gives me confidence on my serve.”
Has anyone yet had the temerity to call you "doubles specialist Martina Navratilova?"
No, not that I can recall. But that's exactly what I am now, so why not?
When we left you at the end of 1994, you were riding off into the sunset. In 2003, you were a Grand Slam title-holder again. What happened in the in-between years?
For the first of those five years, I just had a great time. For the most part I was on my own. I got to do things I loved for longer periods of time than ever before. The most time I could take away from tennis while playing was two weeks. So I spent a lot of time in Africa. I went with friends who were doing some glassworking outside of Nairobi and we went on trips into the bush. I got to know a lot more about animals, I learned a little Swahili. I liked it so much I felt I could live there. I also did a few woodworking courses. My three-car garage has now become a one-car garage because the rest of the space is my woodworking studio. I have all the goodies, the band saw, table saw, lathe, all of it.
Did those experiences allow a different aspect of your nature to come to the fore?
I did some growing up, I guess. Tennis is such a selfish existence. It has to be, in an individual sport. I guess doing something for others, making a table for my friends, was an unselfish act, although I never thought of it that way. To me it was just something I wanted to do. The biggest difference is the free time and not having to worry about how some outside interest would affect me as a player. Of course, I have those issues again now. When I think about going to the movies, I ask myself, "Can I get away with it, or is it too late? Will I pay a price in my game by not getting enough sleep?" Even in doubles, you must pay attention to what you need to do to play your best.
Did you miss the adrenaline rush of big-time singles competition?
I missed the ability factor, that you're really good at something that few others can do and you can excite people with it. But I didn't really miss the competition. I got just as much of a kick out of playing softball, basketball, hockey. I had fun in those years away doing other sports, and for my competitive fix I always had World Team Tennis. I played four or six matches every summer and didn't need more of it. When I got serious about playing again, it was about doing something I knew I was good at. But when I started hitting balls again, it was like, oh my god, how long is it going to take me to get back just to the level I could reach with my eyes closed five years ago? But getting back there turned out to be, more than anything else, a labour of love.
You must be aware of one interpretation of your return, that you came back because you couldn't stay away, you were bored and needed meaning in your life. Does it bother you that some people think that?
It doesn't bother me at all, because if you know me you know I've never been bored, not a day in my life. Returning was all about seeing how well I can play again and whether or not there was something I could still learn. I was fascinated by the idea that I could still improve, despite my age. I've never cared what people think. If I did, I would have kept my mouth shut over the years on lots of things. If something is good enough for me, nobody has a right to question it. Also, I honestly didn't feel I would sully my record by going through with a comeback. Not that it would have made a difference if I thought it might, because I probably would have done it anyway. My father didn't want me to play (again). He was afraid I would lose in the first round. Well, we got to the second round in our first tournament. Of course, it took awhile before we won something, but that's OK, too.
Was it difficult making the commitment to return at a serious level?
I was in a good position to do it. I was single, not beholden to anyone. It was just like taking a job after not having one. You wonder, do I really want to do this? That's a lot easier when it's not going to change anyone's life but your own. When I started in 2000, I thought I would just play those four tournaments that year and be done with it. So I ended up playing for three years without winning anything. But I knew I could get better. That's what kept me out there and coming back for more. That commitment was there. What's meant the most to me is the reaction from fans.
I had a woman come up to me, give me a hug, and say, "You've inspired me so much, and not 20 years ago, but now, the way you're putting yourself on the line." Or like the time I got off the chairlift at Aspen and someone yelled, "Hey, Martina, you rock!" I was like, "Thanks, dude." Even though I'm older than that kid's mother. And it can be tough, knowing you won't win as much as you once did but still giving it everything. It can be a struggle just trying to do your best every day and not allowing age to be a big factor. Sure, I could never be as good in a lot of ways. But in other ways, perhaps I could be better.
Was your decision to return based on a slow realisation, or a sudden moment when everything just clicked and it was like, "Yeah, I want to play tennis again"?
It really was an accident. If I wasn't doing TV commentary at Wimbledon in the years I was retired I probably never would have done this. Commentating at Wimbledon made me watch the spring events, and the French Open, just to do my homework. I didn't really have to keep up after Wimbledon, so I didn't. One year, some friends and I rented a houseboat on Lake Powell (in Nevada). We were totally out of touch, and I remember returning from that trip on the Wednesday after the U.S. Open final and not even knowing who had won. And I didn't even really need to know.
Those first few years, from 1995 to about '97, I was playing a few Legends events, but that was it. I was falling really out of shape and getting tired of it. I wasn't doing much of anything but I was eating a lot and putting on weight. So I started working out again. While I was on a trip to Africa, I started running. So by the time I got to Wimbledon in 1999 I was pretty fit. In fact, I felt so good I thought I could have played there. I still had the hands, I knew that. But big deal. If you don't have the legs to get to the ball, it doesn't matter. I shared these feelings with my good friend Marianne de Swardt, who was off the tour with a bad back. We talked again that following February, when she was better, and decided, OK, let's try it. Let's go for the doubles. I had a lot of fun, and when her back went out again after Wimbledon, I started looking for other partners. It sort of snowballed from there.
What have you learned on your comeback trail?
I was surprised by the general support for what I was doing. Also, I'm surprised at how that support runs the gamut from young to old and male to female and everything else, all walks of life, races, everything. That support is what made me keep coming back. In terms of tennis, the other day I did a drill to enhance my hand quickness. I was doing a drill where I was hitting high, line-drive forehand and backhand volleys. Well, I never hit that shot in my life before. Now I do. Now I wish I had that shot 15 years ago.
Did you think coming back would be this much fun?
“I've never cared what people think. If I did, I would have kept my mouth shut over the years on lots of things. If something is good enough for me, nobody has a right to question it.”
It's fallen into place now that I have the final piece of the puzzle — my trainer, Giselle (Tirado, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario's former trainer). For the last few years, I had a coach here and there but I did my own training. That gets old. For me, it got old even before I started again. In my last two years on the tour I would have been better off with a trainer than a coach. By then, I knew how to play the game. It was about getting to the ball, nothing else really mattered. Giselle knows how to train. She knows that training should be three things: fun, varied, and effective. Last March, when we started doing sprints, she was just laughing at me while she was running backwards. Now I can keep up with her facing the same direction.
How much does your success have to do with your 20 years of fidelity to training and nutrition?
I couldn't do this if I hadn't trained my body for it 20 years ago. It would be too hard to start cultivating my fitness now. I would just be beating myself up, and tennis is such a hard sport to begin with. Now there's something I didn't fully appreciate before. It wasn't until I quit and then started again that I realised, tennis is rough, man. All the twisting and turning and starting and pivoting. I had to do all kinds of specific training to deal with tennis-specific pains and aches, like tightness in my lower back. Overall, though, I'm holding up pretty well. But it takes maintenance. You need mental toughness to do the serious physical training. People used to ask me, "How did you become so mentally tough?" I'd tell them, "Because you get mentally strong just doing the physical work before you even step on the court. You walk out there knowing you're in better shape than your opponent."
You were a vegetarian for some time. Is it possible to be a world-class athlete without eating meat?
About six years ago, I got sick on bad eggs. I threw up and then I couldn't look at an egg for a couple of years. I had a lot of trouble getting enough protein in my system after that, especially on the road. I've gone back to eating fish. It was hard at first, believe me. It took a lot of getting used to. But I'm looking forward to going back to being a total veggie. One day, I'd like to go raw. But that's luxury, because you need someone fixing your meals or have nothing better to do than make them yourself, and I don't want to be a slave to food. My vegetarianism has always been philosophical, not physical. That's why I want to get back to it.
Did you set any standard for yourself when you returned, like saying that if you didn't get past the third round by some date you would pack it in?
No, never. When I started playing, I realised that most of the times we lost, it was either because I wasn't matching up well with my partner, or that my partner wasn't playing as well as he or she needed. I felt if I could just get someone a little better than me, I'd be OK. Because I can hold my own, but I can't carry anyone else anymore.
A lot of doubles players have a chip on their shoulders about not getting enough respect. Can you talk about the satisfactions of playing doubles?
You know, I've always loved doubles, and for the same reasons that I love the game now. Things happen really fast. You have to be quick with your feet, your hands, and your head. There's also a wild-card element with partners — your own as well as the other team. There's always another person lurking. I also love playing on teams, I love working with a partner and trying to figure things out. I always loved the talking. That's one of the main reasons I've always had a coach. Half the time I didn't need the advice, I just wanted to talk about what was going on. I love the idea of on-court coaching. That would be the best. So that's another great thing about doubles, you can talk to your partners instead of to yourself like I used to do when I played singles. The hardest thing for me in doubles was having a partner who didn't like to talk.
I was always like, "This isn't much fun." So I had the solution, play with (Pam) Shriver! Seriously, that had a lot to do with our success. We liked each other, we liked talking, and we knew how to keep it fun. Now, with Sveta, here's this girl, 30 years younger, and she's like a sponge. And sometimes she tells me to calm down. It makes me laugh. I also believe that you need to be a more capable tennis player to be great at doubles.
You've won big in women's and mixed doubles. Which do you prefer?
Mixed doubles is more difficult because more teams can win. If you look at Slams, you see some pretty weird teams winning the mixed. And that tells you a lot about the chemistry of mixed. For me, Leander (Paes) is the boss. He can do whatever he wants. My job is to make sure I hold my own against the girl. I usually feel confident about that. That leaves Leander free to do his thing. He's so fast it's just ridiculous. He's the ideal mixed-doubles partner because he covers a lot of ground and hits a big ball. He also protects my serve well, even if I'm throwing in puff-balls, he'll get the job done. And that gives me confidence on my serve. At Wimbledon, I lost serve like three times in six matches.
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After having to deal for so long with the stress of singles, is all this gravy?
If I had just retired from singles and continued playing doubles, that might have been the case. But taking all that time away added a nerve-wracking element to trying to get back. You know, I went from being someone who made headlines when she lost to someone who made them when she won. But it's a lot easier in doubles to say, "Ok, let's just do our best and see what happens."
When you left Wimbledon as a singles player for the last time, you took a handful of grass as a memento. What was it like going back there?
The first year, 2000, I just wanted to get on Centre Court again. Being on that court transcends everything, it's what being a tennis player is all about. So then, to end up back there two years later, winning the title, that wasn't icing on the cake. It was the cake. By the way, I got a hunk of grass this year, too. Just in case I don't come back. I won a final — I was entitled, no?
Was there a special poignancy to tying Billie Jean King's record of 20 Wimbledon titles?
That was never the idea. I read in USA Today that I came back because I wanted to tie or beat Billie Jean's record, which wasn't true. I saw Billie at Wimbledon, and she wished me luck. I didn't see her after that, but she called and left a phone message back in the U.S. congratulating me. She's very proud of that record, but if someone's going to break it, I think she'd rather it was me. (King set the record in 1979 playing doubles with Navratilova).
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Did anyone set a standard for you in terms of longevity or dedication to the game?
Billie's passion for equality influenced me. That's the most important thing in my life, being fair to people. But in tennis terms, the hero was Rod Laver because he played tennis the way I think it should be played. He was such a great all-around player, and he was a lefty. If I wanted to be like anyone, it was Laver.
You've been outspoken on many social and political issues. Has your worldview changed over the years?
Not really. I think that if anything, I'm more aware of animals and I want to make a difference on that front by being involved, not just giving money. I support PETA. Sometimes they can go a little far, but nobody gets hurt and their heart is in the right place. I've also been involved with the Sierra Club, the Humane Society, and an organisation called Save the Rhino. I want to get involved in the Everglades restoration effort. I've driven through quite a bit of the Everglades, and it's alarming what's going on.
I'm going to throw out two words, give me your reaction: Dixie Chicks (the band whose public criticism of President George W. Bush triggered a widespread boycott of their music).
Ha! I've talked about that a bit. I was upset when those DJs in Denver got fired for playing their music. Is this democracy? That's oppression. It's not as bad as it was in Czechoslovakia, where if you bad-mouthed the President you went to jail. But here, if you bad-mouth the President you can get ostracised financially. Personal liberties are being eaten away in the name of security. But hey, if you really want to be secure, you should never leave your house. There's always a chance you'll get run over by a cab, or a terrorist. We've also taken away too much personal responsibility. That has nothing to do with Bush, it's just our country. We're too protectionist. There are places where you can't make a turn if you don't have the traffic arrow, even if it's in the middle of the night and there isn't anyone within two miles of you. Where's the respect for personal judgement?
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When you look at the tour today, do you wish you were still playing singles?
I wish I were playing against some of the top players. I was lucky enough to play with a few overlapping generations, from Margaret Court to Martina Hingis. But to tell you the truth, the way air travel has been after the 9/11 attacks, I'm glad I don't have to do it anymore. It used to be we would get to the airport half an hour before flight time, get whisked through with VIP treatment and that was it. Now it's just not as much fun.
About a year ago, you made some remarks about the Williams sisters that some people took offence to and interpreted as racist. Did you find that ironic?
I don't remember that incident. But if you criticise somebody who's white, people look at the criticism. But if you look at someone who's black with the same criticism, you're racist. That's bull. If you start seeing it that way, you can't say anything critical about anybody. If someone criticises me, it's anti-gay and the person is just a bigot. Well, I know some people are bigots, but I know I probably was a jerk plenty of times. I think I'm about as colorblind as you can get.
Has this nation fulfilled your hopes?
One thing that distresses me is the way America has become the world's most hated nation. I can't change that, but it's disappointing because it's still a great country, even though we still leave so many behind. There are so many unemployed, evicted, with no health insurance. We can do better. Tennis has given me everything I could have dreamed of. America has given me everything I could have dreamed of in most cases, but also less in some cases. There are some areas, like gay rights, where America could be further ahead. We seem to be making some progress, but we're still behind most of Europe and Canada. Overall, though, it's a slam dunk.
( The article was republished from Tennis Magazine in Sportstar issue dated January 31, 2004) * Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.