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

WIMBLEDON, England — She is still halfway between there and here, like an infant frozen in those first steps from mother to father. Behind Martina Navratilova is a country, a family, and now, five straight Wimbledon championships. Alongside her is a Texas estate, a woman friend, an American coach. Ahead of her still lies acceptance, a place in our hearts. And there is no telling when it will all come together. So even as she stood there Saturday at Centre Court, her arms raised in triumph, the Wimbledon crowd cheering loudly if not enthusiastically, she was yet a woman in fragments, fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Consider the scene: Across the net was a shadow image of herself, Hana Mandlikova, a Czech star who still lives there, and who, like many countrymen, still harbors some resentment for Navratilova’s defection 11 years ago.

Then, in the corner box reserved for players’ guests, sat Navratilova’s mother, father, and sister, Jana. They cheered for her. They waved at her. But, as Czech citizens, they could not go home and live with her.

Next to them sat Mike Estep, her coach of three years, and next to him, Judy Nelson, “Martina’s special lady friend,” as the tabloids here put it. They can accompany Navratilova back to America, but Nelson, a mother of two, is still married to someone else, and Estep has his own family.

“Who was watching this back in Ft. Worth?” Navratilova was asked, after defeating Mandlikova, 7-6, 6-3.

“The woman who watches my house said she and all the animals watched,” Navratilova said. And then she half-laughed. “Five dogs and a cat watching TV.”


How long has Martina Navratilova been the best in her business? Three years? Four years? Eight years? It was, after all, in 1978 that she first finished the year ranked as No. 1.

She has won everything that matters. Twice. She holds the longest consecutive match win streak in women’s tennis. She has earned more than $10 million in prize money alone. At Wimbledon, she has lost exactly two sets in the last five years.

Yet has anyone ever reigned longer and been loved less? Ivan Lendl, another Czech, is on his cold and distant way. But Martina has a few years on him. John McEnroe, for all his antics, is hated more vehemently, but also embraced more heartily. Big Mac can always find a home. Who will ask Martina to come by for dinner?

When she plays Chris Evert Lloyd in a big final — as she seems to do all the time — the sentiment is always with Chris. Name one time it wasn’t. Playing the semifinals here against stunning teenager Gabriela Sabatini,
“only made Martina look more like a border guard than usual,” wrote one U.S. journalist. Fans concede her greatness, but think nothing of insulting her. She is seen as a machine, capable of winning whenever she wants. Why should she need something as human as fan support?

Admiration. Disdain.

She is left, again, somewhere in between.

Of course Martina’s defection to America in 1975 is the tallest fence across her personal meadows. Had she been born in the USA, her acceptance there would be assured. Or, were she still a Czech — instead of a U.S. citizen — she would at least have a place to hear the “home court” cheers.

Instead, she is stranded in the middle, the best tennis player her homeland never saw.

Which is what made Saturday’s match against Mandlikova so fascinating. The two have known each other since the early ’70s. They met at the prestigious Sparta Sports Club in Prague, where Navratilova was a teenage star when Mandlikova was just a ball girl. In fact, the first pro match a 12-year-old Mandlikova ever saw was between Navratilova and Renata Tomanova.

“Which player would you like to be the ball girl for?” Mandlikova was asked.

“Martina,” she answered quickly.

Her idol.

Now, 12 years and an Iron Curtain later, they were across the net from each other. Wimbledon finalists.

The match began, and Mandlikova — who toppled Navratilova at the U.S. Open last year — dominated the early going. She hit winners off Martina’s serve, mixed her shots, rushed the net, and left the defending champion screaming at herself: “Disgusting! . . . Jesus Christ! . . . Come on!”

And before you could say “The All England Lawn Tennis Club,” Mandlikova had a 5-2 lead.

Then she changed her shoes and, for some reason, everything else followed suit. Somewhere between Games 7 and 8, like an intruder in the palace, Mandlikova stepped on a creaky floorboard. And the giant named Navratilova woke up.

From that point on it was run for the beanstalk. Navratilova, when she wasn’t blasting a terribly effective serve, camped at the net and poked volleys everywhere Mandlikova was not. The young Czech went limp. She lost three straight, held serve, then finally fell in a tie-breaker.

“Did you ever think you might lose?” someone asked Navratilova afterward.

“Not really,” she said. “The closer we got to this match, the more I saw myself hoisting that trophy.”

How fast would it come? How fast could she serve? Navratilova even rushed the ball boys once she started rolling.

Twenty-nine minutes and the second set was history. When her final volley skipped past Mandlikova, Navratilova shrieked, and threw her arms up high. Five Wimbledons in a row! Only Suzanne Lenglen and Bjorn Borg had ever accomplished that.

Yet even at that purest moment of victory, the seams of Martina’s life were in plain view. She shook hands with her opponent who, under other circumstances, would be a travel partner, a close friend. She held the winner’s silver plate and blew a kiss to her family — whom she sees only when the Czech government allows it. And when she came to the interview room, some of the journalists clapped, while the others did not.

“A smattering of applause,” she wryly observed.

Half here, half there. Once again.

So you cannot blame Martina for being hungry for history. That, after all, is one family that cannot reject her. Eight Wimbledon singles titles (the record held by Helen Wills Moody). Twenty overall Wimbledon titles (singles and doubles, held by Billie Jean King.) These are the blips on her periscope now — especially with Lloyd on the threshold of retirement.

“How much longer can you play?” Navratilova, 29, was asked.

“Oh, God. Your guess is as good as mine,” she said. “Maybe three, four more years.”

“Does it get harder to win here each year?” came a question.

“It gets harder because it means more,” she said.

Maybe numbers will do it. Maybe the more she accomplishes, the more she will whittle down people’s resistance. And maybe not. The average fan still cannot relate to her warrior attitude, or her self-professed lesbianism, or her birthplace, or her humor, or her looks. She has a reputation of being distant and steel-edged — are there any Czech players who don’t have that reputation? — but that is unfair.

People would be surprised to know that between Navratilova and Lloyd, it is Martina who is more emotional, more highly strung. Chris has a nerve of steel with the face of a glee club president. Martina’s curse is that her features are the other way around.

So she is admired but not loved, written about but not understood. There always seems to be a sharp side to a comment — even when she’s kidding. After winning Saturday, she was congratulated by Kitty Godfree, 90, the oldest surviving Wimbledon champion, a little white-haired woman in black pumps.

“I’d love to get a chance to hit with her,” Navratilova joked on TV afterward.

“You’re going to challenge her?” teased the interviewer.

‘Yeah,” Martina laughed. “I challenge you, Kitty.”

It was a joke. But it came off wrong.

In a few weeks, Navratilova will return for the first time in 11 years to Czechoslovakia for a Federation Cup match. There is a chance she could play Mandlikova again in the final, a fascinating sword-cross of civics and sentiment.

“What are your feelings about going back?” someone asked Navratilova.

“Well, I’m really looking forward to going home,” she answered. Then she paused, and added, “Ft. Worth, that is. I can’t wait to go home first and then go to Czechoslovakia.”

She paused. At a moment like this — when she has to distinguish between homelands, when a family is waiting, but with limited time, when she has lassoed glory, but only lukewarm applause — it is hard to watch Martina Navratilova closely and not feel something for all she has gone through.

She is Wimbledon’s champion. She is the best in her business. She has pulled the pieces of a patchwork life together into a powerful, healthy whole.

But the seams still show. And they will for a while. CUTLINE: Martina Navratilova throws her arms into the air after winning her fifth straight Wimbledon singles championship.


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