The biggest story in sports today is Jason Collins's: The NBA veteran, in an article for Sports Illustrated, became the first male athlete in a major professional team sport in the U.S. to declare publicly that he's gay. It's a big deal, and something that many of us have been waiting for. But "male athlete in a major professional team sport" is also a pretty big qualifier. This year we've already had a female athlete in a major team sport, Baylor basketball star Brittney Griner, come out. And it has been more than three decades since tennis's Martina Navratilova did the same, in 1981.
The post below was originally meant to be Chapter 19 (of 20) of my book, High Strung, which revolves around the 1981 U.S. Open. The chapter tells the story of Navratilova at that tournament, which turned out to be a crossroads moment in her life. She had become a U.S. citizen that summer, and around the same time had, with some trepidation, made her sexuality public. Navratilova played the Open as an American for the first time, and for the first time was accepted as one. The tournament ended in defeat and tears for her that year, but in many ways it was the start of her great, career-transforming run through the 1980s. The clip above is from Martina's breakthrough win at the event, a three-set semifinal win over Chris Evert. It was a sign of things to come.
“Go back to Russia!”—advice screamed in the direction of Martina Navratilova (formerly of Czechoslovakia) by an upper-deck U.S. Open heckler in 1981
“I don’t think I would take a vacation at Flushing Meadows,” Martina Navratilova told the press at the U.S. Open with a laugh. 1981 had been a year of change and tumult for the newly minted American citizen, but she was in a good mood at the moment. She had just beaten her longtime rival Chris Evert, the tournament’s top seed and the world’s No. 1 player, in a classic three-set semifinal. Now Navratilova would get a chance to play her first U.S. Open final, in front of 18,000 of her adopted countrymen.
But as Navratilova intimated in her press conference, Louis Armstrong Stadium hadn’t been a pleasant place for her or her opponent that afternoon. In the middle of the third set, a raffish, tipsy crew of “known scalpers and gamblers” in Row Q of the upper deck began to get rowdy. They were drinking, they were screaming, they were cursing, they were brawling with security guards. They were so annoying to the spectators and disruptive to the players that play had to be halted to shut them up. One of them, an Englishman named Philip Greenwood, began to taunt Navratilova obscenely. She answered him with a yell: “Go have another beer and shut up during the points!”
Finally an all-out chase scene began. Police, security guards, and even ushers tore across the bleachers, as everyone else in the stadium, including Evert and Navratilova, stopped to watch. It ended when an usher and St. John’s student by the name of Ron Calamari took a flying leap and took one of the rowdies down. When play ensued, it was, to the surprise of most tennis observers, the high-strung Navratilova who recovered her concentration more quickly than the eternally even-keel Evert. Navratilova came back from 2-4 down in the third set to win 6-4. “That scuffle in the stands could easily have put me away,” Navratilova said afterward. Maybe she was finally beginning to feel at home at the Open.
As of 1981, Navratilova was the women’s version of Bjorn Borg in New York. She had won Wimbledon twice and been a dominant player for nearly a decade, but she had never reached the final at Forest Hills or Flushing Meadows. Like her countryman and fellow U.S. transplant Ivan Lendl, she had been stamped with the choker’s label. In the previous four years, she had been upset in the semifinals by Wendy Turnbull, Pam Shriver, Tracy Austin, and, in the fourth round in 1980, by her younger countrywoman Hana Mandlikova. Always ready to speak her mind, Navratilova had complained about the swirling winds, the roaring airplanes, and the “fans shouting their lungs out.” She compared Flushing to a “medieval marketplace.” It seemed that, like Borg, she was another sensitive European who wasn’t tough enough to handle tennis in the Big Apple.
Navratilova’s emotional history with the Open went deeper, though, back to the days at Forest Hills. It was there that, as an 18-year-old high school student in 1975, she had announced her defection to the United States from communist Czechoslovakia at a packed and chaotic press conference on the grounds. The media gathering had been hastily thrown together to keep Czech agents from grabbing her and taking her back home before the world could find out about her decision.
One year later, Forest Hills had been the sight of another public trauma for Navratilova. Everywhere she went in New York that summer, she was asked about her defection. The truth of her decision and her new life began to hit her: At 19, she was alone in the West, cut off from her family back in Prague forever. By the time she played her second-round match against the little-known Janet Newberry, it was all too much. Navratilova, before a meager late-day audience, lost in three sets. After shaking hands, she sat down, put her head in her hands, and started to cry. She never stopped. Finally, Newberry herself walked over and helped her off the court, like someone helping an old lady across the road. “I hope I never see anyone in that condition again,” Newberry said.
Navratilova had spent much of her first year in the U.S. doing what patriotic citizens of the American empire do: going on shopping sprees and pigging out on junk food. By December 1975, just three months after her defection, the New York Times scolded that she had “become a walking delegate for conspicuous consumption. She wears a raccoon coat over designer jeans and a floral blouse from Giorgio’s, the Hollywood boutique. She wears four rings and assorted other jewelry . . . She owns a $20,000 Mercedes-Benz sports coupe . . . As an undisciplined gourmand, she is overweight.” With the binge came the hangover. After a year of non-stop travel, Navratilova was quickly burnt out. By the time she got to Forest Hills in ’76, “It all kicked in,” she told the Washington Post. “I had nobody to lean on. I couldn’t see my family, they couldn’t see me. I was all alone . . . . I felt like the whole world was against me.”
Over the next five years, Navratilova would go through many more highs and lows, triumphs and disasters, coaches and relationships, phases and fads. The stateless star was always in search of something better, something new; the answer was always around the next corner. Like Lendl, she became more American than most Americans. But where he embraced law and order conservatism, Navratilova, a native of Prague who had witnessed the Soviet invasion of 1968, embraced the American tradition of questioning authority—so much so that she earned a self-described reputation as “Martina the Complainer.”
In that time, she would win two Wimbledons, but the consensus was that even then she hadn’t tapped all of her sky’s-the-limit potential. Few other women players had ever moved or played the sport as fluidly and instinctively as Navratilova. Like McEnroe and Nastase, her mix of grace and power left most of her opponents looking drably earthbound (Rod Laver had singled her out for her potential when he saw her play as a 16-year-old). But as with Nastase and McEnroe, her genius for the game came with an acute, hair-trigger sensitivity to everything around her. The young Navratilova too often let her emotions get the best of her.
By early 1981, she had hit another low point. As the year began, she remained stuck at two major titles, while Evert’s total had climbed to 11. The discrepancy between them was underlined in humiliating fashion at Amelia Island in March, when the American showed no mercy in drubbing a listless Navratilova 6-0, 6-0. But what appeared to be the bottom was in reality a turning point. During that tournament, Navratilova had met women’s basketball star Nancy Lieberman. The two hit it off immediately, and Lieberman began the arduous task of changing Navratilova’s attitude toward the game and her talent.
Lieberman had been the ultimate anomaly as an athlete. She was a Jewish girl from deep Queens whose hero was Muhammad Ali, and who rode the subway through the city at night to play basketball against the toughest male competition in Harlem. She had transformed herself into “Lady Magic,” the best women’s basketball player in history. But after dominating the college game at Old Dominion, Lieberman had been left with nowhere to play when the nascent women’s professional basketball league folded in 1980. Now she had a new project, and she set about infusing the sensitive, lackadaisical Navratilova with her hard-eyed passion for training, as well as her confrontational competitive style. It was, in the words of Evert, the start of the “Kill Chris” campaign.
It wasn’t only Navratilova whose world was being rocked in 1981. Women’s tennis had been shaken by the news in May that a Los Angeles hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett had filed a “palimony”—“galimony” in tabloid speak—suit against Billie Jean King, alleging that they had had a long affair in the 1970s (Barnett sat between King and her husband, Larry, on the sidelines at the Battle of the Sexes in Houston in 1973). King held a somber press conference a few days later confirming the relationship.
This wasn't the “Mother Freedom” who had taken on and taken down Bobby Riggs eight years earlier. It was one thing to proclaim women’s power, but in 1981 it was quite another to proclaim lesbian power. King and her husband posed for a damage-control profile in People soon after. “I hate being called a homosexual,” she told the magazine. “I don’t feel homosexual.”
Along with the rightward political shift that Ronald Reagan’s election had swept in that year, the country at large was experiencing a conservative cultural moment. 1973, when King played Riggs, had been the high-water mark of 60s-style liberalism—it was the year of Roe vs. Wade, Watergate, and the end of the draft. 1981, by contrast, was marked by the rise of Reagan and the growing influence of the Moral Majority, which had been founded by Jerry Falwell two years earlier. King and others in women’s tennis feared a backlash among fans and sponsors. They were right to be nervous. By summer there were rumors that one of those sponsors, Avon, was likely to discontinue its $16 million commitment because of the Barnett controversy.
While Navratilova had never hidden her own sexuality, she feared the repercussions of it for the tour, and for herself. At her citizenship hearing in California, she had told the INS agent conducting her interview that she was “bisexual” and been relieved when nothing had made of the revelation. On July 20, 1981, Navratilova learned that her application for citizenship had been approved. Ten days later, she opened the New York Daily News to see an article entitled, “Martina Fears Avon’s Call If She Talks,” by Steve Goldstein. Months earlier, Navratilova had spoken with Goldstein about her sexual relationship with American writer Rita Mae Brown. Navratilova had asked him not to go public with it in light of the publicity surrounding the King-Barnett suit. But Goldstein’s paper didn’t want to wait any longer. In the article, Navratilova was quoted saying, “If I come out and start talking, women’s tennis is going to be hurt. I have heard that if I come out—if one more top player talks about this—then Avon will pull out as a sponsor.” The following year, Avon pulled out.
From the start, Navratilova had been stunned by how much image meant in the U.S.—“look at Ronald Reagan, always smiling,” she said. By ’81, though, she had begun to take control of her own image and soften it for public consumption. She arrived at the Open that August with highlights and a ponytail that made her look like a country schoolgirl. More important, the work with Lieberman, which had begun in earnest when Navratilova had lost early at Wimbledon, was starting to pay off. “I haven’t been so pumped since I won Wimbledon two years ago,” Navratilova said as the tournament began.
She was also thinking in a new way on court. At the start of the tournament, Renée Richards, the transsexual player and eye doctor who had caused so much controversy at recent U.S. Opens, had lost in the first round in 1981. She asked Navratilova if she could help her for the rest of the tournament. While she wouldn’t be formally made her coach until after the Open, Richards hit with Navratilova, watched her practices and matches, and began to give her strategic pointers. Like Lieberman when she had first glimpsed Navratilova’s tepid practice efforts, Richards was appalled to find out how little tactical thought she gave to her game. Under her tutelage, that changed quickly at the Open. “I’m thinking about it, instead of just going out and hitting the ball,” Navratilova said after her semifinal win over Evert, crediting Richards by name. “I don’t know if I could have beaten Chris if she hadn’t helped me.”
The Lieberman-Richards combination would become known, somewhat derisively, as Team Navratilova. Yet while it garnered laughs at the time, Navratilova’s new, holistic approach to training would mark was another advance in the Open era. While pros like Vilas and Borg had coaches and svengalis in the 70s, Navratilova was the first to have a support team—one person to work on her physical training, another to help with strategy, yet another to monitor her nutrition. (In the ensuing years, her “coterie,” as she called it—she hated the word “entourage”— would grow into a traveling road show that filled the player’s guest box inside Centre Court.)
While it seemed over the top at the time, Team Navratilova would be an unprecedented success. For the rest of the 1980s, she would dominate the sport like no other player before or after; from ’81 to ’89, Navratilova would win 442 matches while losing just 32. The run began at the ’81 Open, when Richards and Lieberman watched her beat Evert and break her semifinal jinx. “I was so excited, it felt like a final,” Navratilova said after that win. “Now I have to come back tomorrow.”
Her opponent would be a familiar one: 18-year-old American Tracy Austin. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed Southern Californian and the youngest of eight tennis-playing siblings, Austin had been another pure product of the Open era: She was the original tennis prodigy, the first in a line of precocious young women who would take the game by storm as teenagers only to leave it prematurely. Austin made the cover of World Tennis at age 4, and the cover of Sports Illustrated at 13. She was the youngest player to win a pro tournament, the youngest to be ranked in the Top 10, the youngest to enter Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, the youngest Open champ and the youngest athlete to earn $1 million. She was also, in all likelihood, the youngest to receive a call from the President of the United States. During Austin’s Open debut as a 14-year-old at Forest Hills in 1977, Jimmy Carter had rung her up to have a congratulatory chat.
Austin was also the first of the “Chris Clones,” the grinding, ultra-consistent baseliners with two-handed backhands who flooded the sport over the next two decades. If anything, Austin was even tougher than Evert, an assassin in braces and a homemade pinafore dress. “She was a mental giant,” said Austin’s coach, Robert Lansdorp, who also worked with Pete Sampras and Maria Sharapova. “The toughest player I ever had.”
Two years earlier, the clone had conquered the original when Austin stunned Navratilova and Evert in succession to win the Open at Flushing Meadows. The first signs of trouble had begun to appear at the beginning of 1981. Austin had suffered a sciatic nerve injury and been unable to pick up a racquet for two months. But by mid-year she had recovered and had come to New York as a strong pick for the title.
Riding the high of her win over Evert, Navratilova came out “like gangbusters,” according to Austin. “I’ve never seen someone come out of the blocks so fast.” Rather than being heckled from the upper deck, Navratilova, who had never been a favorite in the land of Chrissie, felt an unfamiliar emotion coming toward her from the Open audience. They were pulling hard for their new fellow American. It made Navratilova, the famous choker, even more nervous.
Tennis history had refused to turn a corner earlier in the week, when Vitas Gerulaitis had held off Ivan Lendl in their fourth-round classic. Now the sport had come to another defining moment: Navratilova, like Lendl, would be the future of the women’s game, while Austin’s back injury would put her out of the sport in two years—unbelievably, at 18 years old, she was playing her last Grand Slam final. Once again, though, the future would be denied. Martina, deep down, was still the unsure child of the 70s, not the swaggering killer of the 80s. She won the first set 6-1, with a dazzling display of hook serves; lunging, perfectly placed volleys; and surprising drop shots. All of her high-flying athleticism, all of her potential, was on display at last.
In the second set, though, the old annoyances crept in. She started to be bothered by the wind. She began to talk to herself. She missed easy forehand volleys. She whiffed on an overhead. She eventually double-faulted 13 times. In the end, when the match reached a third-set tiebreaker—it was the first Open final to be decided by one—Navratilova was out-thought by Austin. After aiming her forehand crosscourt all match, she suddenly saw that there was an opening down the line. She would hit three winning forehands in that direction in the tiebreaker, shocking Navratilova and bringing her, by match point, to tears.
Navratilova later said that if Richards had been her coach before the tournament began, she would have won it. As it was, she came up agonizingly short in front of her new American supporters and countrymen. “I wanted it too much,” she said. “I froze on some volleys that might have won me the match.”
The crowd didn’t care. They never stopped cheering for her, even in defeat. They cheered as she sat on the sidelines, crying. They cheered when her name was announced as the runner-up. They kept cheering as she pressed her hands to her face, spun away from the microphone, speechless, and, not knowing what else to do, banged her hands together in a show of raw emotion.
“They weren’t cheering Martina the Complainer,” she wrote later, “or Martina the Czech, Martina the Loser, Martina the Bisexual Defector. They were cheering me. I had never felt anything like it in my life. Acceptance, respect, maybe even love.”
Underneath the bluster, New Yorkers, Navratilova realized then, were just as sentimental, just as emotional, as she was. Whatever Avon and the WTA believed, the fans were with her.
The cheers that Saturday afternoon at Flushing Meadows in 1981 were loud and long enough to send Navratilova soaring through the rest of the decade. Her ex-partner, Rita Mae Brown, believed that her honesty about her identity during that year's King-Barnett controversy was what had finally set her free.
“The reason that Martina today has been transformed,” Brown would write years later, “is because once and for all she has said who she is, period.”