You stand in front of what might be a display case in the silver department at Harrods. It is, in fact, the master bedroom in Martina Navratilova's Fort Worth home, a room given over to showing the trophies and cups from her major victories. Not that the room was so established by Navratilova. "Years ago," says her companion, Judy Nelson, "I asked her where all the artifacts were—the solid evidence."
This is an article from the June 12, 1989 issue
The massed cups and bowls are mingled with framed notes from distinguished fans, among them the Duchess of Kent and Katharine Hepburn. Clearly, Navratilova's reward for all this conquest was entry into the rare company of others who have forged success in their own way.
"I made it my quest to get these things," says Nelson. "I found them where Martina had left them: in people's attics, in storage, with agents, with strangers. There are still two U.S. Open trophies I haven't found."
Navratilova, ever locked on the next conquest, is not the only champion who is cavalier about artifacts of past triumphs. "Chris [Evert] walked in here," says Nelson, "and said, 'Look at this! I ought to try to find some of mine.' "
The large, chased silver platter that goes to the women's Wimbledon victor and is raised tearfully aloft at Centre Court must be given back to tournament officials. All the winner keeps is a copy the size of a salad plate. There are eight of these plates marching unobtrusively along a shelf.
Such solid evidence of how good she has been, and for how long, brings up the question of contentment. Is the difference between eight plates and nine a matter of life and death? "Am I insatiable? Yes!" says the 32-year-old Navratilova. "Wimbledon is like a drug. Once you win it, you've just got to do it again. And if Chris can win [the French Open] at 32, I can win Wimbledon."
"In private," says her friend and doubles partner Pam Shriver, "she must be content with all she's accomplished. But the pressure from the fans and media for more is always there. There's never peace."
But one wonders how much peace Navratilova would enjoy in a vacuum. She has always been an emotional person with an acute sense of the primacy of the individual; she defected from Czechoslovakia less for the West's money than for its promise of the freedom to be true to her own piercing feelings.
And true to them she has been, through liaisons doomed, or wacky or salubrious. Her sense of those personal choices is that it was flatly impossible to do otherwise. "You can't direct your feelings," she wrote in her autobiography, Martina, in 1985, "and say: You can't fall in love with this one. It might hurt your career."
Navratilova is one of the world's great desirers, instinctive and headlong. But one of her irresistible needs is for disciplined, insightful people. As she found them, and as they helped her train, she could abandon herself to her game. And when she has played with abandon, she has been magnificent.
Navratilova has a consuming desire to play that way again, particularly at Wimbledon, which begins on June 26. So while most of the tennis world was sliding across the red clay of Roland Garros at the French Open last week, Martina was working out on grass in Hilton Head, S.C., preparing for her quest to win an unprecedented ninth plate. (Helen Wills Moody is the only other player to have won eight.) Waiting for Navratilova at the All England Club, almost undoubtedly, will be Steffi Graf, the reigning terminator of women's tennis and the player who defeated her in last year's Wimbledon final. Navratilova is 7-4 against the 20-year-old Graf, but that '88 Wimbledon match is the only time they have played since '87.
The root of Martina's Wimbledon desires are deep. Wimbledon was the fairytale vision in the head of the wiry little girl who practiced and practiced on Prague's dusty Klamovka Park courts. "It was the one dream you were allowed to have," she says. Arriving in 1973 at her first Wimbledon, she knelt and touched the grass.
"In 1985," says Shriver, "we lost the doubles final. That ended our 109-match streak. We sat and reflected on those two years and two months without losing, and had an emotional moment. We felt it was good that it ended, if it had to, at Wimbledon. She won the singles that year but was sad about losing the doubles. That's sport. The overlapping emotions."
Navratilova seems to have many overlapping drives. One is a recurring wish to prove something to someone, or everyone. "It's a trait," says Nelson. "Caring about what others think. As much as she'll say the crowd doesn't matter, it does. It's not the force it once was, but it will always be there."
"I realize it's silly and unnecessary to be doing anything to prove things to people," says Navratilova. "But the ninth Wimbledon is a personal thing, a goal. If I reach that, I may hang it up, but I definitely won't feel anymore that I have to prove anything to anyone. My career will be complete."
Inside, she knows it can't possibly be that neat, a career all wrapped and tied with a bow. Competitive hungers have shaped her life. They cannot be shut off. Besides, trying to prove things through victory may be trying for more than artifacts can guarantee. Her reaction to the ovation she was given after losing the U.S. Open final in 1981 to Tracy Austin at Flushing Meadow was proof that she can be reduced to bawling jelly by unqualified acceptance.
Navratilova's place in tennis history could not be more secure. Her 17 Grand Slam singles championships place her fourth on the women's alltime list, behind only Margaret Smith Court, who has 24, Moody (19) and Evert (18). Navratilova's 50 Grand Slam titles overall are second only to Court's 62. Yet if this complex, hopelessly candid, serve-and-volley champion wants to win the universal embrace of a society that safely hugs the baseline, she probably cannot do any more than she already has.
Still, the pressure on Navratilova to win may be increasing. "Pressure grows simply with experience," says Navratilova, "When you're a kid, you don't feel it; you just hit the ball. When you get older, it means more. And there's much more to control because you know so much more. As house and business and family responsibilities grow, it takes more effort to block them out. I'm a nervous wreck before a big match. Chris and I agree it's gotten worse. At 18, we were cooler."
Early this year, the psychological and emotional demands Navratilova places on herself became too much. "I knew for a while I needed a rest," she says, "but it never occurred to me to take it during the French, during a Grand Slam tournament."
She has always given herself completely to the relentless cycle of majors, taking an "off-season" of only a few weeks in December. This year, for the first time in 17 seasons, that respite wasn't enough. "With hindsight, I wish I hadn't played the Australian [in January], but it never entered my mind not to," she says.
Down Under, Navratilova lost in the quarterfinals to Helena Sukova but won the Pan Pacific Open the next week in Tokyo, pulling the final out late from Lori McNeil. Even then she couldn't shake the feeling that she wasn't fully herself. On clay, the surface on which she is least comfortable, it grew worse. "I was unsure. I had to think basic technique," she says. "I was thinking so hard about hitting the ball at all, I had no energy to rid myself of bad habits."
In April, on the clay at the Amelia Island tournament in Florida, where she lost to Gabriela Sabatini, Navratilova's new coach, Craig Kardon, and longtime strategist, Renee Richards, watched her closely. "Her confidence was shot," Kardon says. "She was hitting the ball great. But she was tense. She should have been on autopilot. But she was clenching the controls."
He is being diplomatic. "I was mentally burned out," says Navratilova.
Richards sat down with her and launched the torpedo. "She said, "Don't play the French,' " recalls Navratilova. " 'Bag the clay courts. Take time away to recharge. Get your serve-and-volley game in gear and just prepare for Wimbledon.' I thought about it for 30 seconds, and then got this big smile as I felt a boulder roll off my shoulders."
Navratilova went home and did nothing but let her energy bubble back from its wellsprings. "For the first time ever," she says, "I had a week to do whatever I wanted. I worked on my tan. I saw three movies. I read. I wasn't wild about The Bonfire of the Vanities. Such losers, those characters." She found Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead intriguing, but couldn't finish Marlene Dietrich's autobiography. "I got tired of her two-part personality," she says. "Especially the male-subjected part. She didn't want to serve roast beef because a man had to carve, and she didn't want to impose on her guests. Yuck"
Navratilova's remarkable ferocity was soon restored. And she leaps to deny that regrouping for Wimbledon is any kind of a desperate final act. "This isn't my last stand," she says. "I'm not Custer by any means. If it were my last Wimbledon, I'd be feeling the pressure now. But it's not. Each Wimbledon is an entity, a capsule."
Last year at Wimbledon, Navratilova fought through her matches with mounting stiffness in her legs. "I was exhausted by the time I played Chris [in the semis]," she says. "I had a problem even going up stairs. I was overjoyed at making the final against Steffi, and it was a miracle I won the first set. By then I couldn't use my legs in my serve at all. Steffi was rifling everything back, and people were saying how she'd improved. But now my second serve is harder than my first serve was then."
She made no excuses but plunged into training with basketball player Nancy Lieberman, who had played a large role in Navratilova's ascension and dominance through the early '80s. "But then I felt a hip flexor pain in Montreal [at the Canadian Open the week before the U.S. Open]," says Navratilova. An exam finally revealed that her lower back was so clenched that it was pulling other muscles taut. Osteopathic treatments and stretching have since kept the ailment under control.
Fully refreshed by her minivacation following Amelia Island, Navratilova put herself on a Lieberman-driven regimen of weightlifting, sprints, drills and full-court basketball. Since mid-May she has been playing two to four hours of tennis a day with Kardon. The specific requirements of playing Graf are brutally clear. "Steffi gets to every ball," says Navratilova. "She could have been a quarter-miler, so she's faster than anyone—but not quicker."
In that distinction lies the seed of a plan. Navratilova must challenge not Graf's speed afoot but her reactions. "A great serve-and-volley player will always beat a great baseline player," says Navratilova, "so long as the court is this size. The way to beat Steffi is to attack, unless you're Sabatini and hit ground strokes that bounce 20 feet in the air."
Navratilova doesn't believe she has to lift her game to unprecedented heights to reach such greatness. "Just return to my own best," she says. "Technically, I'm hitting the ball well, but I'm finessing people too much, hitting behind 'em, not blasting right at 'em."
The occasion for the visit to Navratilova's trophy room is a quick tour of the house. The downstairs bathroom is remarkable for a waterfall that slides softly down black stone, and for the dozens of photographs—of matches, dances, portraits. "I collect things that preserve a moment," says Nelson. Here are Shriver, Evert, Nelson and Navratilova in Martina's hometown, Revnice, Czechoslovakia, in 1986 for the Federation Cup. For years after her defection in 1975, Navratilova did not think it possible she would ever see Revnice again. "That was taken by her father," says Nelson. "Unbelievable."
Each room in the Navratilova-Nelson home is distinct. Each seems a rough reflection of some quality of its inhabitants. The photographs of movie stars in the breakfast nook encourage dreaming. The trophy room embodies Nelson's motherly urge to safeguard memorabilia until Navratilova is equipped with enough years to treasure them.
In the upstairs weight room, the tone is tougher. Here, framed, is the $50 bill Shriver sent to Martina after Navratilova was judged liable for that amount for having ripped the film out of photographer Art Seitz's camera following a quarterfinal loss at the 1982 U.S. Open. Navratilova lifts weights three times a week. She easily bench-presses 125 pounds eight times.
"But descending weights are the hardest I've ever done," she says. "Jim Landis, the man at the Aspen Club International, started me doing biceps curls with 18-pound dumbbells. When I get tired, I go to 15's, then 12's and so on until I can't pick up a glass of ice tea. I'm more flexible and have more strength above shoulder level now."
A few years ago, Lieberman's vocal lashings before, during and after workouts so stung Navratilova that the two drifted apart. "I needed her at a time when I was too immature to discipline myself," says Navratilova. "She was still hard on me after I didn't need it. Now it's happy. She doesn't have to badger me. Oh, I'll bitch about having to do seven 440s tomorrow, but it's not serious."
At home, there is a curving water slide down the side of the house to the swimming pool. "The slide is crucial," says Nelson dryly. "Otherwise she'd jump from the weight room balcony to the pool."
Navratilova has lived here since 1984, the longest she has maintained one base in her American life. Here, she has a ready family. Nelson's two teenage sons are always around. Nelson's parents are frequent drop-ins. Lieberman lives in nearby Dallas.
"Nancy always thinks more is better," says Navratilova as Lieberman arrives at the house to take her to play basketball. When it is suggested that Navratilova doesn't need 440s to train for tennis, Lieberman's eyes go round and her curls begin to vibrate. "I'm getting her ready for the third set!" she says. "She has no base of endurance!" Her battle won, Lieberman argues on, running up the score.
"She needs me," Lieberman says later, "to get her going past her rote, I-can't-do-it laziness. We both want to end our careers at the Barcelona Olympics. What a great thing to help each other to that goal. That's what sport is all about: helping each other."
Nelson's help is more subtle. "Judy gave me Passages by Gail Sheehy," says Navratilova. "I realized I've gone through all the stages of life other people do, but at the wrong times. I'm dealing with stuff now that most people do at 20. At 20, I had middle age."
Long resistant to self-analysis, Navratilova is softening. "I've finally started wanting to know why I do things," she says. "I'd get headaches on certain days. Once I said, 'Judy, what's this from?'
" 'What's tomorrow?' she said.
" 'Tennis practice starts. Aha.' Once I realized the connection, the headaches went away."
Navratilova and Nelson seem so well expressed by this house that it comes as a jolt to learn that they're planning to move. They have bought 100 acres in Aspen, Colo., where Navratilova has long had a second home.
The move is for horses and for the mountains Navratilova has loved since her childhood on skis. "The Rockies are it for me," she says. "That's where I'll spend the rest of my life."
But first there is Wimbledon, and a deep breath, and an attempt to generate just the optimum pressure and channel it into the old unconscious, abandoned play. "She'll be fine," says Shriver.
"You'll see her play inspired tennis," says Kardon.
"For a year and a half, she's been struggling to finish on an up," says Nelson. "To not leave the career until the last step is taken."
Could the last step be Wimbledon? "Some things," Nelson says, "you just feel."