1982: Martina Navratilova and the first tennis team

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"Team" was once a dirty word in tennis, but Nancy Lieberman, Renee Richards (above, left), and Martina Navratilova changed that. (AP)

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When Andrea Jaeger walked off the court after losing the 1982 French Open final, she chalked her defeat up to a new problem that the women of the WTA had been having that spring.

“It’s difficult to play three players at once,” she said.

Officially, Jaeger had lost to only one opponent, Martina Navratilova. Newly minted as an American the previous fall, Navratilova had, after nearly a decade of false starts, finally begun to fulfill her vast potential at age 25. That title in Paris, her first, marked the beginning of one of the great extended runs in tennis history. Over the next five years, she would win 13 major titles and reach the finals of six more. Navratilova’s peak would come in 1983, when she compiled an Open era best 82-1 record. No player has ever been as dominant.

What sparked this record run? As a person, Navratilova had become more settled and accepted in 1981. That summer, she had become a U.S. citizen; six years after defecting from Czechoslovakia, she had a home again, and the fans at the U.S. Open that year had cheered her as one of their own. The same year, Navratilova had also, tentatively at first, come out as a lesbian. At least one person close to her, the writer Rita Mae Brown, believed that Navratilova’s public show of strength in herself and her identity helped give her added strength on court in the coming years.

But this career turnaround, perhaps the most stunning in tennis history, couldn’t have happened without the help of the people around her. In the spring of 1981, Navratilova seemed to hit bottom with a 6-0, 6-0 loss to Chris Evert at Amelia Island. In reality, it was a new beginning. On her way to defeat, she caught a glimpse of blond hair in the audience. After the match, the blonde in question introduced herself.

It was Nancy Lieberman, the most famous women’s basketball player of the time. Lieberman was also the ultimate anomaly as an athlete, a Jewish girl from deep Queens whose hero was Muhammad Ali, and who rode the subway in the city at night to shoot hoops against the best competition in Harlem, where she had transformed herself into “Lady Magic.” After dominating the college game at Old Dominion, though, Lieberman had been left with nowhere to play when the nascent women’s professional basketball league folded in 1980.

Now, after hitting it off with Navratilova, Lieberman had a new project. She set about infusing the talented but temperamental player with her hard-edged passion for training, as well as her confrontational competitive style. In the words of Evert, it was the start of of the “Kill Chris” campaign.

By 1982, though, Navratilova wasn’t just training differently, she was thinking in a new way on court. Renée Richards, a transsexual player and eye doctor whose entrance into the women’s event had been a front-page controversy four years earlier, had lost in the first round at the ’81 Open. She asked Navratilova if she could help her for the rest of the tournament. Richards hit with Martina, watched her practices, and began to give her strategic pointers. Like Lieberman, when she had first glimpsed Navratilova’s practice habits, she had been surprised to discover how little tactical thought she gave to her game. Under her tutelage, that changed quickly. “I’m thinking about it,” Navratilova said after beating Evert in the semis at the ’81 Open, crediting Richards by name. “I don’t know if I could have beaten Chris if she hadn’t helped me.” Richards was hired.

The Lieberman-Richards combination would become known, somewhat derisively, as Team Navratilova. The laughs grew louder when she began to follow the trendy diet developed by nutritionist Robert Haas. John McEnroe, asked if he would also try the Haas diet, said no, he preferred the “Haägen Dazs diet.” Tennis, despite its reputation as an effete sport, had always had a macho streak. It was a game of individuals, where the players considered it a point of pride that they fought their own battles and solved their own problems—“team,” outside of Davis Cup, was a dirty word.

Before the Open era, few players had been able to afford to travel with personal coaches. And while young pros like Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas had begun to hire them in the 70s, Navratilova was the first to have a full-fledged support system. One person to work on her physical training, another to help with strategy, another to make sure she ate right. By the mid-80s, her “coterie,” as Navratilova called it—she hated the word “entourage”—would grow into a traveling road show that filled the player’s guest box in Centre Court.

Tennis may have resisted the Martina method at first, but there’s no arguing with success. It didn’t take her colleagues, McEnroe’s opinion aside, long to join her training revolution. Through the 80s, 90s, and beyond, the players would become steadily more professional about their careers. Navratilova’s countryman Ivan Lendl soon brought off-court physical work to the men’s game, and today few top men or women feel comfortable without a player’s box full of people there to support them. The first thing most Grand Slam champions do is thank their team, and congratulate their opponents' on a job well done.

As for tennis’ original team, Lieberman, Richards, and Haas would all fall by the wayside, and Navratilova’s coterie would go through dozens of incarnations over the next decade. The only thing that remained the same through all of them was the winning. 

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