The night before Martina Navratilova was to meet Chris Evert in the quarterfinals of the Virginia Slims tournament in Washington, D.C. three weeks ago, she did what any nervous young player might have done under the circumstances. She phoned home for some fatherly advice.
"Play drop shots on her backhand," said Mirek Navratil from Revnice, Czechoslovakia.
Martina then did what most youngsters do. "Forget it," she replied. "That way I'll lose 6-2, 6-3. I'll play drop shots on her forehand."
At 18, Martina Navratilova is still young enough to need reassurance from home, old enough to make her own decisions and good enough to have beaten the queen of tennis two weeks out of the last three. Following her own advice, in Washington she beat Evert 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 and went on to win the tournament. Chris, who did not get where she is, which is No. 1 in the world, by letting 18-year-olds walk over her, came back the next week in Akron and put away their second-round match regally, 6-3, 6-1.
But last week, in the chilled vastness of Chicago's International Amphitheatre, before 7,000 delirious underdog-rooters, Martina did it again, and this time it wasn't even close: 6-4, 6-0, and match point was an ace.
"I realized she was not moving as fast as usual, so I hit cross-court and made her run," said Martina. "I was winning my serve quite easily, and after I broke her in the first game of the second set I was confident. I think she got down a little bit because she was not able to pass me as easily as usual."
The crowd in Chicago knew that it was watching something special. In the first set, when Martina won a point after Evert had run her repeatedly from one corner of the baseline to the other, the crowd roared for two full minutes.
"It was unbelievable," said Martina. "I felt like I should put my hands in my ears so as not to hear them."
The morning after the match, with the final against Margaret Court only a few hours away, Martina mused, "Now I should be able to beat anybody." But Court, whose comeback is gathering momentum, was not ready to be the first victim. She outplayed Navratilova 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.
Ever since 1973, when she arrived in the U.S. at the age of 16 to play on the short-lived USLTA women's tour, tennis people have been talking about the Navratilova potential—her aggressive left-handed game, her great strength, her natural ability. Watch the Czech, they said. It is only a matter of time.
Warning flags that the time might be approaching went up last September, when Martina won her first U.S. tournament, the Slims Orlando event, beating Rosie Casals, Fran√ßoise Durr and Julie Heldman. Then in Sydney, in December, Martina upset Court 6-4, 6-3 in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. To be sure, Court was just returning to competition after taking most of the year off to have her second child. But Court was still Court, and for Martina the match was a psychological milestone.
"In your tennis career," she says, "there are a couple of chances to be among the best or to be not so good. It depends on one or two matches in your life whether you are going to make it or not. It was really hard for me to beat Chris in Washington. If I had lost that tie breaker in the last set I could have been discouraged and maybe would not try as hard again. But maybe my real turning point was when I first beat Margaret Court. I was playing badly and I didn't feel like beating anyone. But, you see, Margaret Court and Billie Jean were my goddesses, from the first time I saw them on TV at Wimbledon when I was eight or nine. And here I was, playing Margaret Court."
Facing a goddess across a net might have paralyzed some young players, but the experience seems to have exhilarated Navratilova. "I wasn't afraid of her," she says. "I beat her in two sets."
"It will be interesting to see how Martina comes along now," said Court last week in Chicago. "It's around this age that you must move into the top three or four. This is the period when you'll see whether she can take the pressure, whether she keeps coming up for matches, whether she has good wind."
"If she really wants to be No. 1 she will be," says Billie Jean King. "Right now she's still erratic. It's just her age at this point. If she were really ready she'd have come back and beat Chris the next week, too. A true champion wins tournaments back to back. But she is capable of doing anything she wants."
Peachy Kellmeyer, the Virginia Slims tour director, says, "The question now is whether she can keep tennis the most important thing in her life."
Tennis did not become the most important thing in Navratilova's life until she was five years old. Her grandmother, Agnes Semanska, now 69, had been ranked No. 2 in Czechoslovakia before World War II, but Martina started out as a skier. The first years of her life were spent 5,000 feet up in the Krkonose Mountains, where she was bound into skis at 2½. In 1961, when she was five, the family moved down to Revnice, a town of 5,000 some 15 miles outside Prague. Navratilova does not admit to homesickness, but she speaks fondly of Revnice. "In the summer I go swimming to the river or hunting mushrooms in the hills, and in the winter I ski. It's really a lot of fun."
In Revnice Martina's father and her mother Jana concentrated on tennis, playing amateur tournaments in the summer months. "They were at the courts every day and they took me with them," says Martina. "I had an old racket that my father cut down and I hit the ball against a wall. I could do it for hours. They would make me stop and sit me on a chair but whenever they didn't watch me I would go to the wall again."
She played her first tournament when she was eight, and made the semifinals. "The officials didn't want me to play," she says. "They said I wasn't strong enough. But I beat some players five or six years older." At 14 she won her first national title in the 14-and-under division and two years later won the first of her three national women's championships as well as the national junior title, and in that order.
In the meantime she played soccer with boys and ice hockey in the winter and went to school like everybody else. "I was the third best student in my class but I never studied. By the time I was 15 and 16 I didn't have time to study anyway. I loved geography and I imagined myself in places like New York and Chicago. When I got a letter from my association telling me I might go to the United States for two months, I just couldn't believe it. Now I am spending as much time here as at home."
When Navratilova arrived in the U.S. two years ago, she spoke Czech, German and Russian, but little English. Now she is handling at least one press conference and one or two TV interviews a day.
Of her first season in the U.S., she says, "My eyes were wide open then. You know, the big highways and big cars." Also wide open in those days was her mouth. She took in pancakes and Big Macs at such a rate that within two months she had gained more than 20 pounds. "I was really fat and really slow, but I didn't know I was fat. I couldn't see it. I still love Big Macs, but I haven't had a pancake in six months."
Some of the weight is gone now, but she remains a sturdy 5'7½". Her shoulders are broad and her arms and thighs look powerful. She has short light-brown hair, as fine as a child's, and her face is dominated by high, wide cheekbones and forthright hazel eyes. She moves on the court with the economy and assurance of a complete athlete. Bent from the waist at the baseline, waiting for an opponent's serve, she spins her racket handle in her palms. Her head and shoulders weave slightly from side to side, cobra-like, but her feet remain still.
Her serve is perhaps the best part of her game. "I get a high percentage of my first serves in, so I get to the net often and am in good position to put away the next shot. I'm quite good on the net, too. Once I get there I feel really comfortable." Her overhead is awesome. "Sometimes it's not on," she says. "I might miss three in a row. So maybe the percentage is the same as other players, but it is powerful."
Her backhand, she thinks, needs the most improvement. "I have a good slice backhand but I have to improve my top spin. I don't miss but also I don't get myself into position to put it away."
Peachy Kellmeyer says Navratilova has the best half-court volley of any woman player she has seen. "Billie Jean gets down lower," says Kellmeyer, "but Martina's is more completely natural."
It was King who told Martina a few weeks ago that she was going to have to practice more, and who then devoted several hours a day in Sarasota to practicing with her. And it is from King that she is beginning to learn some things about fame and the way of the American sports fan. "Billie Jean told me not to read what is written about me. It might not be true and you might get mad and so you better don't."
Martina's fellow players seem fond of her, and she is comfortable with them. Chris Evert and she recently teamed up as regular doubles partners and have already won their first tournament. "We get along great," says Evert. "If anyone is going to beat me, I hope it's Martina. Her potential is fantastic and there's nothing in her way except [Chris taps her forehead with her finger] her attitude."
"Chris really is the best player right now," says Navratilova. "She plays the same all the time. Maybe a little bit worse one time and a little bit better another, but mostly the same, which is hard to do when you are the best. It is easier to be a challenger. You have nothing to lose. If you lose it means nothing. If you win it's great. It is easier to be—what do you call it—the black horse."