by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON — In a good play, the secondary characters peel away, one at a time, taking their bows, until the star of the show is left alone in the applause. This is how it should be. This is how it was Saturday afternoon, under warm and cloudy skies at Centre Court, Wimbledon. Martina Navratilova shook hands with history, solo at last, and took her bows.

This time there was no Chris Evert, whose white hat had always made Martina seem dastardly. Gone too, was Helen Wills Moody, whose record of eight Wimbledon titles had been such a dangling carrot all these years. Navratilova looked toward heaven. She began to cry. The day before, with her nerves jangling, she was reminded of the words of her new mentor, Billie Jean King, who said: “Don’t get caught up in all this other stuff. All you have to do tomorrow is hit the ball.” And so she grabbed a tennis ball off the TV set, put it in her pocket, and walked around with it all day, taking it out, squeezing it, feeling its simplicity.

And on Saturday, after 75 minutes of simple tennis mastery, she watched her opponent’s ball fly long over her head — “Out!” called the linesman — and she raised her hands in the air. She had done it. After spending half her life making annual pilgrimages to this royal playground, she owned it. All alone. It was her stage. And, apparently, her seats too, for she jumped into the stands and scurried upward, stepping over startled people’s heads until she reached the family box, where she hugged members of her entourage and said thanks.

You can do that when you’ve won nine Wimbledon titles — more than anyone before you. Even so, Navratilova later admitted with a laugh, “I scanned the climb first, to be sure I could make it.” They call this the wisdom of age. At 33, it is just one of the things Navratilova has mastered.

It is time we gave her credit for the rest. Acceptance came hard

Here we have a champion who has waited half her life to be accepted. She is a victim of the American hero system the same way Vanna White is a ridiculous beneficiary of it. There was warm applause finally for Navratilova in American living rooms Saturday — but she had to do something extraordinary to earn it. Nine titles? Geez. How many athletes win nine of anything? Does anyone have nine Kentucky Derbys, nine Masters, nine World Series rings, nine boxing championship belts?

“Did it make it sweeter because you played so well?” someone asked Navratilova after she conquered first-time finalist Zina Garrison to win Wimbledon, which, by the way, is her first Grand Slam title since the U.S. Open in 1987.

“Well, it didn’t have to be a thing of beauty,” Martina answered, honest as always. “I mean, as long as you win, they don’t put an asterisk next to it saying ‘She won, but she didn’t play so hot.’ “

On this day, however, she was hot. On this day, she was as young as she wanted to be. Against Garrison, 26, who defeated the mighty Steffi Graf to earn the final, Navratilova was a tennis textbook. She put magic on her topspin. She hit volleys from all angles. She defended the net the way a Mississippi grandpa defends his porch. Tennis is more than hitting, it is thinking ahead, two and three shots, moving your body like a chess piece in anticipation. To win the last point of the next- to-last game, Navratilova covered more ground than a lawn mower, racing to retrieve all of Garrison’s angled volleys, sprint, whack, sprint, whack — yet, at the same time, she forced Garrison into position as if she were a puppeteer, until, finally, Zina’s angle was more difficult; she hit into the net. This was beautiful tennis. Even the British TV announcers were left to invoke a most American cliche: “She can do no wrong.” Never the ruthless one

Funny, isn’t it? That was not always the case. For a while, she could do no right, at least as far as her adopted country was concerned. No matter what Navratilova, a Czech defector, accomplished on the court, she could not get America to unfold its arms and embrace her. She was too robotic. Too distant. Her private life too weird. Not coincidentally, Ivan Lendl, also Czech born, has suffered these same slings and arrows.

Chris Evert once explained it this way: “I’m American. And as much as she wants to be 100 percent American, Martina is Eastern European and a lot of Eastern Europeans are like her on the court. . . . She’s sensitive, vulnerable, she has a good sense of humor, but on the court you only see the aggressive, confident player.”

Ironic that such words should come from Evert, who, image to the contrary, was truly the more ruthless of the two. To win a match, Chris would slice your arm off. Not so Martina, who was much more insecure, more prone to cry, more jittery. And yet the public perception was exactly the opposite. Martina looked so muscular, she spoke with an accent, she wore glasses. Chris wore earrings and lip gloss. Since America usually picks heroes on skin-deep characteristics, it was a pretty easy choice.

And so for all those years, even when she was winning all the titles, and was ranked No. 1 in the world, and was miles ahead of her peers in terms of training, health, mental fitness, Navratilova was defined by Evert. She was Chrissie’s foil, the ying to Evert’s yang, the dark hat to the white hat, the ugly duckling to the swan. Even toward the end, when Evert was not much of a Grand Slam threat and the two admitted they actually liked one another, Martina was defined by that friendship. It was Chrissie saying she liked her that gave her the OK. Simply the best

How fitting then, that in her finest hour — and say what you will, Wimbledon is still the measure of any tennis player’s legacy — Navratilova was at last a flock of one. Alone at Centre Court. All the others have gone, Evert, Mandlikova, Austin, the names that once made up the notches in her gun, a gun that often backfired.

Good, because Navratilova should never have needed other names to be defined. She is more than somebody’s rival; she is, arguably, the finest woman athlete of our time. She has been on or near the top of her profession for twice as long as most of her peers. She has more singles championships than we could go into. She is the most decorated doubles player ever. She is a pioneer in training, adapting much of her schemes from the likes of the Dallas Cowboys and the Edmonton Oilers. She is the biggest sports fan on the tour, and that includes the men.

She is also a forthright, courageous woman who has had her birthright, sexuality, femininity and finances raked over by the press. Once, she complained that lower-level players at the Australian Open weren’t getting enough prize money to pay their way. The next day’s headlines had her complaining about her own prize money and calling her “Money Bags Martina.”

When she had the brashness to bring her lover, Judy Nelson, to Wimbledon
— and mind you, neither has ever behaved in anything less than a dignified fashion — the London tabloids had a field day. They still snicker.

Tough. Their loss. Martina Navratilova has come a long way from the scared, junk-food loving teenager who snuck away from her home country for the love of freedom, and could not return until a few years ago, in an emotional reunion. It is doubtful many of us would have had the courage to do much of what she has already done, let alone the talent. To have done it while being unappreciated much of the time is even more remarkable. She’s become the definition

So, happily, she has her own perch now. And yet, to her credit, she seems to have grown more humble over the years. Someone asked her whether she would now contact Wills Moody, 84, who lives a quiet life in Carmel, Calif.

“No,” she answered softly, “I mean, I wouldn’t want it to seem like I broke her record and now I want to meet her. I’ve wanted to meet her for years. I once was in Carmel and I thought about driving past where she lived, but I didn’t want to disturb her privacy. If she would agree to meet me, I would love to meet her.”

“When did her historic record become your goal?” she was asked.

“History never really was. It was just to win one more Wimbledon. I just felt I could do it. If I had won just four, I would have kept trying for a fifth. The history part just makes it nicer. I’m glad people who didn’t get a chance to see Helen play can one day say they saw me.”

We should consider ourselves lucky.

Maybe now we will, at least whenever we recall this final scene Saturday: Navratilova, wiping a tear from her eye, taking congratulations from the Duchess of Kent, who, in a fitting show of appreciation, gave the new Queen of Wimbledon a kiss. Let the others be defined by her now. They have peeled off, moved to the side, they are clapping in the wings. It’s been a hell of a show, and Martina finally has the good light now, all to herself. She has earned every dot of it.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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