WIMBLEDON, England — If she weren’t gay, this would be such a big story. Cameras would be following her all week, and TV and radio would be updating her progress. But here is the dirty little secret about Martina Navratilova. Not that she’s a lesbian. We’ve known that for years. She admits it. Talks about it. Doesn’t try to hide it. The dirty little secret is that she keeps paying for it.
Name me one athlete who has won the biggest championship in his or her field not once, but nine times — and is on the verge of a 10th? Name me one athlete who is 37 years old and still beats challengers half that age? Name me one athlete who is the all-time money leader in his or her profession, has captured every important title and has never been arrested, investigated or rumored to be linked with drugs or gambling — yet still can’t get a major endorsement deal outside of shoes or equipment?
We are what we fear. It turns us around. What is taking place on the hallowed grass of Wimbledon this week is one for the ages, the last lap of a great champion. And — thanks to her victory over Gigi Fernandez on Thursday
— Navratilova is in the finals! Could there be a better story?
No. So where is the overkill? Where is the media blitz that usually accompanies historic championship efforts? This isn’t some minor event, Wimbledon. And it’s not as if Navratilova caught us off guard. She announced long ago that this would be her last year as a singles player. Arnold Palmer’s farewell to the U.S. Open was well-documented. Mario Andretti gets a yearlong
“Arrivederci Mario” tour.
Martina? She came off Centre Court Thursday to the same old faces.
And the same old one-armed embrace. Shortchanged by media
“I don’t have a problem with my being gay,” Navratilova said, matter-of-factly, this week. “You guys seem to have the problem.”
And the words sting, but consider them. For one thing, what athlete besides Martina gets asked questions about his or her sexuality, or has the guts to answer them? Imagine if Navratilova were married, with a nice husband and two darling kids sitting near Centre Court, waving at the cameras. Wouldn’t this story would be all over America?
It’s not Martina’s foreign roots; we embraced Olga Korbut and Oksana Baiul. It’s not her muscled athleticism; we loved Florence Griffith-Joyner.
Face it. It’s the homosexual thing. Back of our minds. Under a layer of political correctness. But there. Martina has come to Wimbledon, over the years, with Rita Mae Brown, Nancy Leiberman, Judy Nelson, the Texas-based mother of two. She never kissed them in public, but they were there, in the stands. And while TV announcers avoided the subject, the hero- makers of America — the media, advertising and Hollywood — said, “Hold it. We can only go so far with this one.”
We are willing to admit Martina’s talent, maybe even admit she is the best female athlete ever.
But those are just words. How often do you hear people gush, “I love Martina, I hope she wins” the way they did for Chris Evert or Jennifer Capriati?
Why? This has nothing to do with whether you approve or disapprove of a lifestyle. We are not electing school boards here. We’re talking sports. And when Navratilova pulls out her racket, she is all the good things about sports, dedicated, magnificently gifted — and also polite, a fair player. And emotional. She has cried and laughed far more than Evert ever did. It’s not as if Martina plays in combat boots or dresses in drag, so why do we hesitate, ever so slightly, to give her the hero’s hug? Farewell hasn’t been fond
For 22 years Navratilova has been coming here. If she wins Saturday, she will own nearly 10 percent of all Wimbledon women’s titles ever. She is synonymous with these courts and their history. Unlike other players, who demand the pampering of five-star hotels, Navratilova stays just off the grounds, in the same rented house, year after year. Now and then you can spot her riding a bike to practice. She likes it. From the time she was a child in Czechoslovakia and a coach told her of this wonderfully green place called Wimbledon — “I always imagined the grass was three inches high,” she once said — she has loved this tournament and has painted her best tennis pictures here.
They call that honoring an event.
It would be fair if the favor were returned.
Navratilova has not had a great farewell season. She bombed at Eastbourne and the French Open. At times she seemed slow, and privately wondered whether she stayed on stage one song too long.
And yet, this week, there have been flashes of the old form, and cunning and patience. And history. No one has ever threatened to win 10 Wimbledon titles. So where are the bands? Where is the media circus?
What a strange business this hero worship. Time after time, athlete after athlete, we seem willing to overlook drugs, violence, greed — yet we can’t forgive who Navratilova chooses to love.
She pays the price, the dirty little secret, and, admit it or not, it’s the reason Navratilova is not being swarmed wherever she goes this week. A pity. For when she leaves, the gap in tennis will be huge.
Take a good look Saturday at a real champion. The best there ever was. Maybe somewhere down the line, a generation, smarter than ours, will give the woman her due.