1975: Martina Navratilova defects to U.S. while playing the U.S. Open

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At 18, Martina Navratilova lost at the 1975 U.S. Open, but won a new life. (Russ Adams)

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"I wanted my freedom."

With that simple, matter-of-fact declaration, an 18-year-old high-school student from Prague named Martina Navratilova made herself the biggest tennis story of 1975.

She made the statement in a jam-packed press tent at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y., on the final Saturday of the US Open. Pandemonium reigned around her as cameras clicked and reporters shouted questions; but the teenager remained as calm and self-assured as could be expected, considering what she had just done. The previous night, after her semifinal loss to Chris Evert, Navratilova had defected from her home country, Czechoslovakia, to the United States. In an instant, much to her surprise, she had made herself into a household name.

“I had no idea what a splash it would be,” she would say later, remembering that era of famous Cold War defectors. “After Baryshnikov, there was Navratilova.”

As a teenager who had yet to win a Grand Slam, Navratilova may have appeared an unlikely candidate for defection or superstardom at that moment. Looking back, though, it all seeemed inevitable. From the beginning, her personality had been pointing her in this direction. There was never any question in her mind that being free was her birthright.

As Johnette Howard wrote in her co-biography of Evert and Navratilova, The Rivals, Martina had spent her first two years on tour mostly ignoring the Czech officials who “were consistently leaning on [her] to play here, stay there, follow the rules, limit whom she talked to.” Instead, Navratilova had struck up friendships with Western players, stayed in pricey hotels, and stuffed herself with junk food—“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” was a favorite Americanism of hers when she was 16. In February of 1975, though, Navratilova did something more serious: She stayed an extra week at a tournament in Amelia Island without asking permission.

After that incident, the Czech tennis federation ordered her back to Prague, where she was subjected to a disciplinary hearing.

Navratilova’s nervous parents told her, “You can’t do whatever you want.” 

“Why not?” was her answer.

Like other Czechs, Navratilova chafed under her government’s control, and the constraints it put on her life. The federation, for instance, took all of her prize money when she was a teenager. But her resentment went one step further. Navratilova’s grandparents had once owned a 30-acre estate before being forced to hand it over to the Soviets after World War II. By the time Martina was born, her mother, Jana, was living in a single, second-floor room; the family, which would soon include her stepfather, Mirek, wouldn’t have hot running water until Martina was 12. The memory of her family’s past status, and what had been taken from them, never left her.

“She may not have had hot water,” another Navratilova biographer, George Vecsey, told Howard, “but the memory of having nice things goes beyond that. On her mother’s side, they once had money. They used to look at that house with other people living in it with bitterness. It was part of their family heritage. And there was this sense in Martina, from a very early age, that things did belong to her, that she deserved to have certain things in life, economically, psychologically.”

Finally, in 1975, Navratilova decided there was no going back to the country that had taken so much from her. She began the year by recording her first win over Evert, a breakthrough that made her believe more deeply in her talent and her ability to someday become No. 1. That spring, after a runner-up finish at the Australian Open, Navratilova went on to reach the French Open final. There, she lost to Evert, but the two teamed up to win the doubles together. Her confidence, on and off court, was growing.

The following month, Navratilova’s family was granted permission to visit her in London during Wimbledon. They planned to defect together once Martina lost, but when the moment came, they couldn’t pull the trigger. “We chickened out,” Navratilova said.

If she was going to leave Czechoslovakia for a new life, she was going to have to do it on her own. When officials at home ordered her to return after the US Open to finish high school, rather than play the tour that fall, Martina told her stepfather she wanted to stay in the United States. Without a word to her mother, and with the knowledge that she might never see her parents again, she left for New York.

Again, as at Wimbledon, Navratilova planned to defect once she was out of the singles, with help from Fred Barman, her manager. Barman notified the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the FBI; an agent told Navratilova not to say anything to anyone. When she lost to Evert in the semifinals, Navratilova and Barman crossed over to Manhattan and visited the spooky, deserted INS building downtown. After meeting with a pair of gun-toting FBI agents, answering questions and filling out paperwork, Navratilova woke up in her room at the Roosevelt Hotel the next morning to hear that the Washington Post had broken the story of her defection. (She never learned how the paper got wind of the news.)

Fearing an attempt by Czech officials to “snatch” her, as Barman said, they raced to Forest Hills for the momentous press conference. Once she went public, Barman reasoned, no one would try to take her back.

Soon after, the Czech sports federation issued a statement essentially washing its hands of its former star:

“Martina Navratilova has suffered a defeat in the face of the Czechoslovak society,” it read. “Navratilova had all the possibilities in Czechoslovakia to develop her talent, but she preferred a professional career and a fat bank account.”

Traveling with FBI protection, Navratilova received standing ovations at her next two tournaments, in Atlanta and Charlotte. That fall in Denver, Czech authorities sent her former Fed Cup coach, Vera Sukova, to try to convince her to come back. She declined, and went on to win the tournament.

Navratilova was free. She was 18 and without her family, and she was in a new and very different land. There would be many ups and downs to come. But the future was hers.

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