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A celebration of Martina Navratilova’s multifaceted legacy
Above all else, Navratilova should be lauded for her unwavering integrity and steadfastly standing up for her beliefs. Tennis is better for it.
Published Apr 01, 2020
This week on Tennis Channel, we're looking back some of the sport's most important players, personalities and moments throughout its colorful history. On Wednesday, from 12-3 p.m. ET, Tennis Channel Live will focus on Martina Navratilova. Here's a preview, and a present-day perspective.
Defining Martina Navratilova’s multifaceted legacy is no simple task. She must be celebrated as the most versatile women's player of the Open Era by virtue of capturing a record 167 singles titles, not to mention another 177 crowns in women’s doubles.
She won 18 majors in singles and 41 more in doubles, securing the last one alongside Bob Bryan in the 2006 US Open mixed doubles when she was nearly 50 years old. She finished no fewer than seven seasons as the world’s top ranked player.
And yet, there is more. At her zenith, this estimable left-hander had a five-year span of invincibility that no woman in modern times has matched. From 1982-86, she won 70 of the 84 tournaments she played, taking 254 of 260 matches during the first three of those sterling seasons, winning six singles majors in a row across 1983-84. Meanwhile, she joined forces with Pam Shriver in doubles to win 109 consecutive matches, including an authentic, calendar Grand Slam in 1984.
Moreover, she was a part of the most compelling sports rivalry of all time, overcoming Chris Evert 43-37 in their stirring 1973-88 career series.
“Never mind that we played 80 times, but most of the time we were No. 1 and No. 2 in the world when we met. It was like Federer and Nadal times three,” she said in 2014. “The appreciation grows when you realize you had something like a vintage wine.
"I don’t know if you will ever get that kind of confluence of perfection again. This was one of a kind. The quality combined with the quantity I don’t think will ever be repeated.”
They collided 14 times in the finals of Grand Slam events, with Czechoslovak-born American prevailing in 10 of those meetings. She upended Evert in five Wimbledon finals and two US Open finals. That 7-0 record in title round contests at the two most prestigious tournaments in tennis was a remarkable achievement.
Meanwhile, their mutual respect endures to this day.
Their friendship started in the mid-seventies. These two all-time greats not only collected two major titles together in doubles, but they often practiced together. In the eye of my mind, I can still see a 1975 practice session they had in Philadelphia. Billie Jean King was out on the court with them, offering advice to each of her younger rivals. At one stage, Navratilova was practicing her overhead, putting away one thundering smash after another.
King, however, spotted a technical flaw. As she commenced her constructive criticism, Evert interjected, “But, Billie, Martina hasn’t missed even one overhead!” All three players grinned, but Navratilova still listened to her mentor, making an immediate adjustment, realizing King knew precisely what she was talking about. A perfectionist, Navratilova most certainly was.
She had some great years in the seventies, breaking into the Top 5 in the world when she was still 18 in 1975, winning her first two of a record nine singles crowns at Wimbledon in 1978 and 1979. But not until 1981—under the guidance of fitness guru Nancy Lieberman and coach Renee Richards—did Navratilova begin unswervingly to make the most of her soaring talent.
Transformational in the evolution of women’s tennis, she practiced harder, altered her diet significantly and was immensely dedicated in the gym. Only Margaret Court had supplemented her tennis with such serious commitment, but Navratilova took the regimen to an entirely different level, turning herself into one of the most finely tuned athletes. This was a central part of her legacy.
As the former world No. 1 moved into the second half of her thirties, her training habits were undiminished, but inevitably her results deteriorated.
“As I got older I remember busting my ass. But when I ran for the ball I couldn’t get there as fast, and when I swung hard the ball didn’t travel as fast, even though I was still lifting heavy weights in the gym,” she told me about five years ago. “It was not that I was in denial. I knew I was getting older, but in tennis there is such a small, intangible difference between winning and losing a match, and between making a shot and missing it by an inch wide. It is very frustrating.”
In 1994, Navratilova reached her last Wimbledon singles final, at the age of 37, but her doubles prowess lingered much longer. She made a case for herself as possibly the finest female doubles player of all time.
Where does she belong on the singles historical ladder? In my view, Steffi Graf gets the nod as the best ever, with Navratilova right behind her and Evert at No. 3. The jury is still out on Serena Williams despite her 23 majors—one more than Graf for the Open Era record, but one behind Court. Perhaps Serena will deserve the GOAT label when all is said and done, but her consistency over a long span does not meet the standard set by my Top 3.
One day long ago, I was walking down a hallway at the US Open, and Navratilova was heading in the opposite direction. She had heard about my ranking list, and told me firmly that in her mind she belonged at the top. But there was no time for us to discuss it. We went our separate ways.
About seven years later, in the summer of 2014, we had a chance to revisit that topic. By then, she had a different point of view.
“It’s about your body of work. Margaret Court played about half of her tournaments before the Open Era and half after,” she said about who should be considered the best of all time. “Chris and I didn’t go to the Australian and French Opens for a number of years when the Grand Slam events were not such a big deal, but from the mid-eighties onward they became a bigger deal.
“Steffi had the most Grand Slams after Margaret, but I had bigger numbers elsewhere, as did Chris. I wanted to be one of the all-time greats. I thought at one time, ‘I am the all-time great.’ But now I am thinking I am one of the all-time greats.
"There are different measuring sticks. You would have to feed a whole bunch of data into a computer and let it spit out whatever result it could, but there are always intangibles. I am just happy to be in the same group as Steffi, Chris, Margaret Court and Serena. I am one of them. That is good enough for me.”
That is the fair-minded view of a champion who altered the face of women’s tennis with singular force and persuasion. With all due respect to the late Jana Novotna—who won Wimbledon in 1998 as an excellent attacking player—Navratilova will go down as the last of the enduringly great serve-and-volley practitioners in the women’s game; no one has ever packaged those two elements quite like her. She will be remembered for the way she wore her emotions on her sleeve, for her astonishing athleticism, and for her courage as a woman who left her native land in the former Czechoslovakia in 1975 and ultimately became a United States citizen six years later.
Above all else, Navratilova—now an outstanding commentator for Tennis Channel—must be lauded for her unwavering integrity and steadfastly standing up for her beliefs. Tennis is better for it.