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Martina Navratilova turns 65 today. There has never been and likely never will be an athlete in any sport who traveled so far to accomplish so much, and do so for so long.

Navratilova’s achievements are epic. Start with an Open Era-record 59 Grand Slam titles: 18 singles, 31 doubles, ten mixed. She is one of only three players, alongside Margaret Court and Doris Hart, to have won the singles, doubles and mixed titles at every major.

Where Navratilova stands alone is on the longevity front, winning majors in her teens, 20s, 30s and 40s. Her last, the 2006 US Open mixed doubles title, was earned just over a month before Navratilova turned 50.

But even more, consider the Navratilova journey. She’d been raised behind the Iron Curtain, in Czechoslovakia. For all the oppression that defined her youth, Navratilova often pointed out that one saving grace of Communism was that its leaders strongly believed both men and women could be world-class athletes. Even if this notion was in the service of advancing Cold War objectives, it surely benefited Navratilova. Her tennis idols growing up were Rod Laver, Billie Jean King and Court. Major aspects of each would surface in her game, from Laver’s lefthanded genius to King’s competitive intensity to Court’s physicality.

Swiftly, Navratilova became a great tennis player. In the first major she ever played, the 1973 French Open, the 16-year-old upset 1968 Roland Garros champion Nancy Richey and made it to the quarterfinals.

Two years later, she was one of the top four players in the world. But Navratilova also remained under the thumb of her nation’s leaders, bureaucrats who worried that their promising star was become too smitten with America; that is, with freedom.

She was – and took a bold step to earn it. Hours after losing in the semifinals of the 1975 US Open to Chris Evert, the 18-year-old Navratilova met with an official from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to discuss the steps necessary for seeking asylum in the United States. There was intrigue, discretion and, eventually, rage from the Czech officials. But there also came freedom. Call it “The Lefthander Who Came in from the Cold.” Navratilova shortly after purchased a silver Mercedes 450SL, adorning it with a license plate that read, “X-CZECH.”

Navratilova, representing the United States of America, at the 1982 French Open.

Navratilova, representing the United States of America, at the 1982 French Open.

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In July 1981, she become an American citizen. That was the same year Navratilova took another leap forward, in a revolution that would also change the sport.

It happened in the spring. While Navratilova had already been ranked No. 1 in the world and twice won Wimbledon, a meeting with basketball star Nancy Lieberman convinced her that she could become an even better tennis player. So began a tennis revolution in the realm of physical fitness and training. To be sure, tennis players such as Australian greats Frank Sedgman and Court had spent time in the gym. But Navratilova took off-court work to new heights—weights, running, cross-training with basketball and other sports. She also overhauled her diet and rebuilt her backhand and forehand volley. What Navratilova started created the template for the way every professional tennis player currently trains.

By late 1981, the pieces were coming together that would make Navratilova tennis’ dominant player for the next six years. Starting with a win over Chris Evert in the finals of that year’s Australian Open, Navratilova during that time would win 15 Grand Slam singles titles. Most notable: six straight Slams won between 1983 and ’84. Over the course of those two years, Navratilova compiled a staggering win-loss record of 164-3.

Navratilova began her career competing versus such greats from the 1960s as Court and King. It continued with engaging rivalries with the likes of Evonne Goolagong, Tracy Austin and, later, Stefanie Graf and Monica Seles.

The pinnacle, of course, came versus Evert. Navratilova-Evert remains arguably the greatest rivalry in sports history, an 80-match epic. Still, to be on par with Evert, Navratilova had to make up considerable ground. At the end of 1977, Evert led the rivalry 20-4. From there, Navratilova won 39 of their remaining 56 matches to end up leading, 43-37.

The rivalry between Navratilova and Evert remains one of sports' greatest.

The rivalry between Navratilova and Evert remains one of sports' greatest.

Navratilova continued competing in singles well into the 1990s. By the end of 1994, she’d won an Open Era-record—for both genders—167 singles titles. One of her last moments of singles glory came that year at Wimbledon. At 37, Navratilova reached the finals, her quest for a 10th singles title only stopped by an incredible effort from Conchita Martinez.

Amazingly, in 2000, the 43-year-old Navratilova returned to full-time competition, albeit mostly in doubles. During this time, she won three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. The skills that had taken her to the top—sharp volleys most of all—remained formidable. As Navratilova liked to say, “The ball doesn’t know how old I am.”

Yet of all the incredible accomplishments, dramatic matches and emotional moments that comprised Navratilova’s career, none were as meaningful as her return to Czechoslovakia. It happened in the summer of 1986, more than a decade since she’d defected. Navratilova came to Prague to compete in Fed Cup. Months earlier, her request for a visa to return to her native land had been denied. But now, as part of a team, alongside Evert, Pam Shriver and Zina Garrison, the application was approved.

The day she showed up to play, the local newspapers barely mentioned her. Shops at the event sold items promoting many players—but not Navratilova. But there was no stopping the thousands gathered inside the new Stvanice National Tennis Stadium from applauding their native daughter. No player that day received louder cheers. As the Czech national anthem—Where Is My Homeland?—played, Navratilova began to cry.

“I told myself, ‘don’t cry,’” Navratilova said in a New York Times article. “But I always tell myself that, and I don’t listen.”

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Navratilova, with U.S. Fed Cup teammates Shriver, Evert and Garrison, during an emotional tie in Prague.

Navratilova, with U.S. Fed Cup teammates Shriver, Evert and Garrison, during an emotional tie in Prague.

Over the course of that trip, she visited places from her youth and connected with family and friends. But as the event neared its end, she also was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “It really hit you here, more than anywhere else, the fact that I’m an American now.”

Well after her career was over, Navratilova continued to tilt at windmills. At the 2020 Australian Open, she and John McEnroe held a banner that read “Evonne Goolagong Arena,” an emphatic suggestion that the venue’s Margaret Court Arena be renamed given Court’s views on LGBTQ rights.

For her entire life, Navratilova has crusaded for fairness. It was a major reason why she so loved tennis.

“Tennis is the purest form of democracy,” she once said. “There was a symbiotic, chicken and egg relationship for me between democracy and tennis.”