- Martina Navratilova was one of the first athletes who refused to stick to sports. More than a decade after her retirement, she's as outspoken as ever.
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Earlier this year, Martina Navratilova discovered the BBC had been paying John McEnroe 10 times more than it was paying her for their commentary work during Wimbledon. Navratilova did not remain silent—of course—calling attention to an issue that, as she saw it, went beyond her 1099. “It’s shocking this happens, but for me it’s a part-time job—two weeks of my life,” she said. “For women who work full-time, maybe the discrepancy isn’t so large, but it adds up over a lifetime.”
Navratilova is 61. She lives in South Florida with her wife, Julia Lemigova, their two teenage daughters and a menagerie of animals. And she is thoroughly recognizable as the player who won 18 Grand Slam titles between 1978 and ’90. The athlete who brought nutrition and fitness training to women’s tennis is still ripped. At Legends events she holds her own against opponents a quarter-century her junior.
And she remains fully informed, ferociously curious and fiercely opinionated. Decades before Jason Collins and Adam Rippon, Navratilova competed as an openly gay woman. At a time when athletes and activism often didn’t mix, she refused to stick to sports, speaking her mind on matters from immigration to animal rights. All of that is unchanged. Whether it’s on Twitter (@martina), or in her frequent speeches to corporations, or in the commentary box on television (full disclosure: she and I are both analysts on the Tennis Channel), Navratilova says what she thinks, consequences be damned.
On the eve of Wimbledon, a tournament she won a record nine times, Navratilova spoke with me, serving up a steady diet of opinion. Oh, and during the fortnight she’ll be working for the BBC again. Only now at a higher wage. Here are some outtakes, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Q: We should point out that even before you were a dominant champion, you spoke your mind. Was there one moment when you realized that, 'Hey, I have this platform to speak about matters beyond tennis'?
I didn’t know that’s what I had. I always ventured away from tennis in press conferences. I would riff and talk, but it wasn’t anything where I was thinking, I need to say this because I need to make a stand or whatever. But if something came to my head, pretty much most of the time I would talk about it.
Q. And the backlash—
A: I wasn’t afraid of any backlash or anything like that because, once you leave a Communist country, you are not going to censor yourself. I had already been censored [in Czechoslovakia from which she defected while playing at the U.S. Open in 1975]. What was going to happen to me [in America]? People wouldn’t like what I had to say, but I was not going to lose my job. And I didn’t have to worry about it threatening my livelihood. Maybe it hurt me on the endorsement side, but I always err on the side of saying something rather than being silent.
Q: Where did you get those instincts?
A: [I’m] a believer in fairness. Maybe that’s a Czech thing. And so if I saw something unfair I would always try to do something about it and certainly speak out about it. I can’t not go there. And tennis is such a democratic sport. It is about as fair a sport as you can get. Maybe that is where the sense of fairness comes from.
Q: What’s unfair in 2018?
A: Well, the erosion of human rights around the world. There had been so much progress made but in America we are going backward. I just saw a sign that somebody posted on Twitter and it was from a hardware store. No gays allowed. On a hardware store.
Q: In 2018—
A: And that is all coming from the top, you know. That is all coming from Trump and his enablers. And it is really terrifying what we are doing with immigrants. Turning people into criminals who are just asking for a better life. They haven’t done anything wrong . . . and they still get separated from their children. It is just this erosion of humanity that is happening in my country.
Q: You sound like you want to fight more than ever.
A: It’s like you want to disconnect but you can’t—I can’t. But if you take it too personally then it affects your everyday life. So I try to find a balance between being involved but not consuming me because then it affects my family life. So it is a tricky proposition. I know I would be doing a lot more if I were single. But I have a family so I have responsibilities.
Q: Two athletes on opposing teams say, ‘If my team wins the NBA Finals, I am not going to the White House.’ That would have been unthinkable—
A: You never had a reason not to come. I may not have agreed with Ronald Reagan, but you would still go. Maybe you wouldn’t be thrilled about it, but you would still go. Bush, you would probably still go. Now? That man? And Pence? I am certainly not going if I ever have the opportunity. You have to take a stand. Or take a knee.
Q: But don’t you think that is a triumph—athletes—figuring out what you figured out in 1982?
A: Well, I think that social media makes it much more possible. I know I would have been much more vocal because I would have had the opportunity. I had the platform, but you still do an interview and you hope somebody writes something. Now you are your own writer. You have your own newspaper basically. So it is much easier to get involved and it is nice to see these athletes speaking out, even though it may hurt them in the pocketbook. But they are on the right side of history, so I think that is where people can say, You know what? No matter what happens now, I am doing the right thing. But yeah, it is gratifying to see more athletes speaking out and being personally involved.
Q: I just said this to someone: You were ahead of the times in a lot of ways. Do you feel like people have caught up to you?
A: Well, I think people have caught up on the gay rights issue, but we are still sliding backward. I thought we were done fighting a lot of these battles. So, it’s more important to stay vocal and stay involved, to get involved.
Q: And you have no temptation to say, 'I am out of the arena, I have done my work, let someone else take over.'
A: My mom used to ask me, “Why do you have to keep the rainbow flag? Why do you have to walk in the front row?” I am like, “Well, there is nobody behind me.” Now there are people behind me. It’s great that I am not the only one holding that flag, or fighting the good fight. But it just saddens me that it is still necessary.
Q. You’ve written off politics—
A: I am not going to run for office. Again, family and age. And you know, I was born in Kenya but nobody knows that.
Q: What’s the highest price you’ve paid for being outspoken?
A: When Magic Johnson tested positive for HIV. Everybody was “Oh, poor Magic.” He slept with at least a thousand women by his own admission. I actually met Magic, I love him, I think he is an amazing person and, of course, basketball player. But what I said then, was that if this was a woman they would be calling her a whore. With Magic they were feeling sorry for him. If it was a woman they would say, “She had it coming.” I said that and I caught a lot of s--- for that. I am like, this is the truth! It was such a double standard.
A: None whatsoever! I just wish I had Twitter then.