Martina Navratilova's career turned on a moment of truth. Confronted with the accusation that she had an unorthodox sexual preference—and that's what it still is in the mainstream world of sport, an accusation—she decided to tell an inquiring reporter the truth.
Scores of athletes are gay, but among those who are active stars, very few have chosen not to deny it. Yet together with Navratilova's coming out, a curious thing happened. As she dealt publicly with her private life, she was learning to grapple with some of the private issues that affected the public Martina, the woman who played tennis for a living. She decided that it indeed mattered what she ate, how she trained, how she managed the mental demons that had kept her from being the professional she might be. There bloomed within her a new security and sass and an ease with herself. (Male sportswriter: "Martina, are you still a lesbian?" Navratilova: "Are you still the alternative?") As she shored up her public and private selves, each reinforced the other.
No woman tennis pro has won as many matches. None has won as many tournaments. Over one masterful 14-month stretch in the mid-'80s she won six straight Grand Slam titles, to tie the record set by Margaret Court. To most players on the tour, doubles is an afterthought, but here was a peerless singles champion who took doubles seriously. Navratilova never put together a singles Grand Slam in one calendar year, but she did, with Pam Shriver in 1984, win a doubles Slam. And she won nine Wimbledon singles titles, more than anyone of either gender, nearly taking a 10th in her London valedictory this past summer.
Moments after earning that record ninth silver plate in 1990, she ran unselfconsciously into the stands of the very proper All-England Club to fix her girlfriend with a hug. Yet corporate America still preferred to choose its pitchwomen from the ranks of the less controversial. Chris Evert, the safe baseliner who was both Navratilova's great prod and counterpoint, pitched frozen food, rental cars and Rolex watches. Later, before any had left their teens, Monica Seles peddled hair-care products and jeans, Steffi Graf sold milk and cars, Jennifer Capriati flogged Oil of Olay. Martina? She was considered worthy of deals for little more than shoes and socks.
Yet without any corporate tune callers, Navratilova was free to promote her own beliefs, from animal rights to environmental awareness, and to follow in the footsteps of her sports heroes, so many of whom championed causes beyond the arena and suffered for doing so: Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Jackie Robinson, John Carlos. In going from Communist Czechoslovakia, her native country, to the forefront of the U.S. gay-rights movement, she simply redirected her indignation. She once said, "I've always had this outrage against being told how to live, what to say, how to act, what to do, when to do it."
And how to play. Like so much else about her, Navratilova's aggressive style seemed to have been part of her genetic core. The slow clay of her homeland didn't figure to produce a female serve-and-volleyer. Yet even at age eight, as she learned the game at a club on the outskirts of Prague, some tropism drew her to the net.
When she left Czechoslovakia for good, in 1975 at the age of 18, she did so with a vengeance, partaking of all manner of Western goods. At one point she would own seven cars. With her passion for dogs and the Dallas Cowboys, and her support of the restoration of the Statue of Liberty, it's hard to think of a native-born athlete more publicly American than she. Within months of her defection, another American passion, fast food, had inflated her to 167 pounds, but she was psychologically doughy too, and opponents knew it. "She's always going to have the storm; she's always going to underassess her opponent and underassess her own ability to handle it when the storm hits," said tennis couturier Ted Tinling, the sage of the women's game. "She goes from arrogance to panic, with nothing in between."
But with maturity came the ability to master the crisis. She dropped 22 pounds through diet and exercise, an example that showed others on the tour that it was O.K. for women athletes to have muscles. She won her first Wimbledon in 1978, at 21, and another the following summer. In 1981, nine days before coming out, she became a U.S. citizen. More dedicated than ever to fitness, nutrition and mental preparation, she soon lived down her reputation for choking in key matches simply by resolving to hit more freely on the big points. She found a happy midpoint between arrogance and panic.
There's no better way to plot the are of her ascendancy than to study her record against Evert, whose narrow range of emotion set off the breadth of Navratilova's. Martina lost to Chrissie 21 of the first 25 times they played. When the series ended, Navratilova led 43-37. "Martina takes on other people's characteristics," Evert said early in 1981. "I don't know what that quality is. It's not being yourself, really. Maybe it's a searching." Soon thereafter, no longer stateless and no longer veiling from the world who she really was, Navratilova would finish the searching. She would be resolutely herself.
Through it all she always made plain exactly what she wanted. At various times this included french fries, luxury goods, a country to call her own, another Wimbledon, our affection.
That last thing was her constant craving. But she wanted our love on her terms. And when she got it so universally and unconditionally toward the end of her career, she was somewhat taken aback. She said, "When I get all these accolades for being true to myself, I say, 'Who else would I be?' I can't be Chris Evert."
In Czech, Navratilova means "she who returns." And come back she did, again and again, to who she was and what she needed. To play an honest game. To live an honest life. Who anymore does both?