For the first time in nearly a dozen years the lady had come back
home. The countryside where she grew up was vibrantly green, the
precious gardens in every yard bountiful, the fruit trees ripe. Even
in the old street by the tennis club in Revnice, Queen Anne's lace
sprang up through the cracks in the pavement, and in the fields
near the family house the mushrooms grew everywhere. It was a
glorious time to return. ''But it is not a good year for
blueberries,'' the lady said.
Perhaps. No matter how fine it is to go home, something should
remain forever unsurpassed -- especially if you may never go back
again. So at least the blueberries must have been better when Martina
Navratilova was a child and a Czech, and when Prague, 27 kilometers
away, was Oz.
In the part of Texas where the lady now lives -- which calls
itself (God knows why) the Metroplex -- Prague would be merely larger
than a mall and smaller than the airport. But the capital of
Czechoslovakia has resolve and grandeur, and it is as patient as its
dark beauty is ancient. The people queue for a half hour for ice
cream cones, and while St. Wenceslas, the city's patron, once
promised to pop back if things ever got really sticky, neither
religious atrocity nor foreign occupation, neither the jackboots of
the Nazis nor the tanks of Moscow have been enough to summon his
return. ''Don't bother asking for Wenceslas yet,'' the Czechs say,
''for things are bound to get worse.''
So this summer, for just a moment's time, Martina reappeared
instead. No saint, for sure, but every inch a symbol. Her name,
Navratilova, even means ''she who returns.'' And so she did, although
as her time passed in Czechoslovakia, Navratilova came more to mean
she who represents hope and then, at the last, she who triumphs.
In the Federation Cup, the piece of business that brought
Navratilova back to her native land, she led the U.S. to the
championship, beating the bride of two days, Hana Mandlikova, as the
U.S. shut out Czechoslovakia 3-0 in Sunday's finals. But the outcome
of the cup matches was not nearly as important as how the crowd --
and how the state -- reacted to the lady from Revnice, especially
when she squared off for America against the land of her birth under
a big sign that proclaimed SPORT HELPS PEACEFUL UNDERSTANDING AMONG
Forty-one nations from all parts of the world competed in the
Federation Cup. It was -- save the Olympic Games of Moscow and
Sarajevo -- the most consequential athletic event ever conducted in a
communist nation. Every notable female tennis competitor was on hand.
They included not only the home- team stars, Mandlikova and Helena
Sukova, who were the defending champs, but also, as the major party
daily dutifully reported, such visitors as Grafova, Sabatiniova,
Turnbullova, Temesvariova, Shriverova and Evertovalloydova.
Czech government officials were never under any illusions. If they
were to win a bid for the Federation Cup, they would have to issue a
visa to the lady who left home so rudely in September '75. The
admission of the prodigal was part of a natural continuum. Three
years ago, movie director Milos Forman, who had left Czechoslovakia
in 1969, was allowed to shoot Amadeus in Prague, and for some time
now Navratilova's parents have been permitted to visit Martina in
Texas almost at will. This year's women's final at Wimbledon,
between the good queen, Mandlikova, and the bad queen, Navratilova,
was shown on state television. It was the first time Martina had
appeared on TV in Czechoslovakia since her defection.
By contrast, the Wimbledon men's final between Czech citizen Ivan
Lendl and West Germany's Boris Becker was not shown on Czech TV.
Lendl, you see, has become persona non grata with the party for his
refusal to come back from Connecticut -- where he resides in a
mansion with guard dogs while awaiting his green card -- to play for
Czechoslovakia in the Davis Cup. So his de- existence has begun.
Indeed, in the streets and beer bars of Prague, the most curious
rumor persists: Lendl has married into the family of Richard Nixon,
who is synonymous with communist bashing.
Navratilova's stock with party officials has risen but a smidgen
in the 11 years she has been gone. At the famous Prague tennis club,
Sparta, all vestiges of her existence have been removed. On those
rare occasions when she is admitted to the Czech public
consciousness, as in the Wimbledon telecast, any reference to her
past is omitted. In her debut at the Federation Cup last week, a
first-round match against China, she was shunted to the grandstand !
court, which seats 800 people. Meanwhile, inside the magnificent new
stadium, a match between the Soviet Union and Bulgaria was played.
The Central Court holds 7,500, and possibly 20% of the seats were
taken. Those few on hand rooted lustily against the Soviets.
On the tiny grandstand court the overflow crowd stood three- and
four-deep, climbing upon chairs, ladders and television platforms to
catch a glimpse of Martina. Others looked back on her from the
stadium across the way. On the elevated railroad tracks that run
behind the courts, an engineer kept running his train back and forth
in order to watch the historic proceedings. The umpire became so
discombobulated by all the fuss that after the first game he said,
''Game, Navratilova.'' Cheers. ''Excuse me. Game, United States.''
Titters. In the middle of the match, Martina -- who never wins the
crowd in her adopted country -- couldn't help but turn to Evert Lloyd
in the stands and say, ''I want to play you here.''
After her easy victory over her Chinese opponent, the linesmen
were among those who besieged Navratilova for her autograph.
Government officials were aghast at the display of warmth and kept
the American matches off Czech TV. The local newspapers provided only
bare-bones accounts of the matches.
For all the effort the party puts into pretending that people like
Navratilova and Forman never existed as Czechs, only the dim-witted
are fooled. One day last week, in the old part of Prague,
schoolchildren from the small town of Klatovy were taking a tour of
the big city. A visitor asked: Do you kids know what sporting event
is going on in Prague?
''Pohar Federace,'' they quickly replied.
And who is the best player in this competition? ''Martina
Yes, and where does she come from? Slight pause. Then, from the
boldest few: ''Odgud.'' (From here.) The others smiled and nodded.
These were provincial children, barely born when the lady defected,
yet they knew. They all knew.
That is amusing, however, only if you don't have to live daily
with such madness. Economically, Czechoslovakia ranks near the top of
the Eastern bloc countries -- the first VCR rental store opened last
week, and the hookers of Prague are more brazen than those of
Hollywood Boulevard -- but politically, the repercussions of '68 are
still felt. ''They just don't kill people anymore,'' says a Czech
businessman with a shrug. The erosive ''timelessness'' of communist
society that the Czech playwright Vaclav . Havel has written of seems
to be the worst oppression. But then, in this summer when the
blueberries are not juicy, the lady came back on an American
passport, free and clear. ''It has nothing to do with politics,''
said a doctor. ''Martina has freedom, and we do not, so I must cheer
for her. How else can I ever let the bastards know?''
Navratilova was remarkably composed upon her return. For
chroniclers of history, let it be recorded that at the instant her
plane touched Czech soil she was speaking, with great animation,
about William (the Refrigerator) Perry. Cyril Suk, a tennis official,
staunch party member and father of Helena, the No. 2 Czech player,
escorted Navratilova through a light rain into the terminal. Then,
horribly, came bleak reality. Martina's face dropped; the blood and
happy spark of reunion went out of it. The door opened, and there
before her stood that menace she knows only so well from her past.
August 3, 1986
The Western press.
Lights. Shouts. Rudeness. Pushing. Shoving. Martina's mother was
all but blinded by a flashbulb; her coach, Mike Estep, and his wife,
Barbara, were nearly trampled. How Kafka must have chuckled in his
nearby grave as Navratilova beat a retreat. The tender moment of
return to her native land had been destroyed by those free to come
and chronicle it. In a communist country, the state tells you how to
feel. In a democracy, the press demands to know how you feel. Either
way, you are not allowed to feel. So it was not until
Navratilova's second day back that Czechoslovakia began in earnest
to reclaim its lady. As soon as she marched into the stadium as an
American at the opening ceremonies, the rhythmic clapping ended and
applause for her began. She smiled tentatively, unsure how to
respond. But her eyes misted when the band struck up her old national
anthem, the title of which is, by coincidence, Where Is My Home?
Then Mandlikova, representing the host team, stepped forward to
speak to the crowd. She and Navratilova have never been close, but
Mandlikova thrilled the stadium and rocked the party brass assembled
in the official box by bravely welcoming Navratilova by name. She did
so twice, first in her English remarks and then in Czech. The
spectators cheered when they heard Mandlikova pronounce the name
Western-style (Nav-ra- till-OH-va), but they exploded when she
repeated it in Czech (Nav-ROT-ee- lo- va). Standing next to Martina,
Evert Lloyd reached over, rubbed her friend's neck and fondly patted
As it turned out, Mandlikova was just getting down to tricks. She
had driven to Prague from the Netherlands in her Porsche, telling
friends she didn't give a hoot how ostentatious she might appear to
the comrades. Then, on Friday morn, at the Old Town Hall, without any
warning, she married one Jan Sedlak, a 33-year-old Australian of
Czech origin. The bride wore blue leather. Cryptically she explained
the choice: ''Because I must wear white at Wimbledon.'' Oh.
The matrimony certainly was matter-of-fact. After the ceremony,
the unsmiling bride said, ''We had a cup of coffee, went to the hotel
to change, and back to work.'' Her countrymen were suspicious that
Mandlikova had married an Aussie to gain leverage in her dealings
with the demanding Czech tennis authorities, that it might be the
beginning of another defection. Had Mandlikova found a more novel way
to pull off what two more of their hockey players had done earlier in
the week in America?
Worse, every day the lady from Revnice was winning more hearts.
Young men dashed onto the court to give her roses. The crowds began
to acclaim her, and she grew more responsive -- first waving shyly,
then giving the thumbs-up sign and, at last, blowing kisses. Why, it
almost seemed as if the Statue of Liberty had gone on tour, turning
in her torch for a Yonex racket. Czech officials grew so enraged that
on Friday they ordered the umpire not to introduce Navratilova by
name. She became ''On my left the woman player from the United
During Sunday's finals, the poor crowd was nearly schizophrenic.
By the time Navratilova took the court, Evert Lloyd had staggered to
a 7-5, 7-6 victory over Sukova, and Czechoslovakia was down a point.
When Navratilova and Mandlikova were introduced, the opponent
received almost twice as much applause as the home heroine. But as
the match wore on, the people pulled more and more for Hana. They
wanted a big one in the W column. Never mind symbolism and liberty.
In Prague, no less than in Philadelphia or the Metroplex, winning is
the simple thing. Let the rest of life traffic in complexities.
After 11 games without a service break, Mandlikova blew a 40-0
lead and double-faulted away the set. As Martina rambled to a 6-1
win in the second set, the Czechs, sensing the inevitable, began to
cheer again for the American. In the last game, a tour de force for
Navratilova, there was a crescendo for her. She was one of them
Martina had hardly struck the winning shot when the prime minister
of Czechoslovakia, Lubomir Strougal, rose in the first row of the
party box and left without acknowledging the winner -- or the loser.
The other officials followed in his wake. Not one clapped, and by the
time the Czech team captain, Jiri Medonos, had found his way past
Mandlikova to grasp Navratilova's hand and praise her, Strougal and
his minions had gone. Sport helps peaceful understanding among
It may well be that the men in the box will decide not to let
Navratilova return again to taste the blueberries. But at least for a
moment in one soft summer, she had broken the drone of timelessness
in Czechoslovakia. END