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A champion on and off the court

Hailed as one of the greatest tennis players, Martina Navratilova remains influential in the sport even after retirement.
Saturday, June 4, 2016 - 05:50
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INDELIBLE IMPRINT: WOMEN'S tennis legend Martina Navratilova unveiling a mural of herself during the BNP Paribas Open on March 19.

WE are about 10 minutes past the scheduled time for the interview, and Martina Navratilova makes her way into the Adrift restaurant at Marina Bay Sands. Following closely behind, her minder apologises for the slight delay.

No problem at all, this reporter responds. After all, the 59-year-old had only just hours earlier touched down in Singapore after a long-haul flight from Florida where she resides.

She's been to the Lion City on several occasions, but this time it's just a whistle-stop tour to attend official engagements. Soon, she will be back on the plane - this time to London - where she will spend two weeks at BT Sport's studios doing commentary for tennis tournaments taking place in Madrid and Rome.

It's a fast-paced, gruelling routine for this former world No 1 player who retired from active competition a decade ago in 2006, the year she won the US Open mixed doubles title, her 59th and final Grand Slam crown, capping a remarkable career in tennis.

Not that she minds having such a packed schedule these days. As we chat over coffee for the next 30 minutes or so, Ms Navratilova admits she is fortunate to still be able to travel the world to promote and talk about the sport that she holds so dear to this very day.

South-east Asia is one of her favourite regions to explore because of the food, she says, as she tucks into a colourful platter of sliced dragonfruit, watermelon, strawberries and cantaloupe that the waiter has just placed in front of her.

"I enjoy Asian food - Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, all of it. I'm just in heaven with all the mix of cuisines that you can find here," she says, subtly letting on that she is quite the foodie.

Breaking countless records

Her love of eating and travelling aside, it's clear that Ms Navratilova remains as passionate about tennis as she was when she first picked up a racket at the age of four. She would hit balls off a cement wall near her home in the small Czech town of Revnice where she grew up.

Little did she, or anyone else for that matter at the time, know how her life would eventually pan out over the next four decades, a period that saw her break countless records in the sport en route to becoming the most dominant star in women's tennis.

Her success probably shouldn't have come as a complete surprise, given her background. Ms Navratilova was born to an athletic family - her parents worked as ski instructors, and her mother was also a gymnast and tennis player. Her stepfather later went on to become her first tennis coach when she began playing regularly at the age of seven.

When she was 15, she won the Czechoslovakia national tennis championship and, a year later, she made her debut on the United States Lawn Tennis Association professional tour.

Aware that remaining in the then-Czechoslovakia - a country still under Soviet control at the time - would restrict her chances of making a breakthrough on the professional tour, she defected to the United States when she was 18, and took part in the 1975 US Open.

Although separated from her family for years, that sacrifice proved to be the catalyst for her to achieve greatness in the sport. In 1978, she won her first Grand Slam tournament, Wimbledon, after beating American Chris Evert, a woman whom she would go on to have a storied rivalry with on the courts for years.

A stellar 33-year playing career resulted in a bulging trophy cabinet that few players can only ever dream of. Of her 59 Grand Slam wins, she scooped a record nine Wimbledon singles trophies. As it stands, she's still the proud owner of the most singles titles (167) and doubles titles (177) in the open era.

She held the world No 1 ranking for a total of 332 weeks in singles, and a record 237 weeks in doubles, making her the only player in history to have occupied the top spot in both singles and doubles for over 200 weeks.

On women in tennis

With her playing days now long over, she is more than content to enjoy the matches purely as a fan. She relishes seeing Roger Federer in action because "he makes the game look so easy", and Novak Djokovic because "he does everything on the court so well, it's almost frustrating watching him play".

On the women's tour, she counts Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza (the current world No 1 doubles team), Simona Halep (the top-ranked player from Romania) and Karolina Pliskova from her native Czech Republic among her favourites.

She understands why the level of interest in the women's game may not be as high as it used to be back in the day, and one of the chief reasons is the lack of competition to consistently challenge the reigning world No 1 player Serena Williams.

"We haven't had a big rivalry for the last five years or so. In my time it was myself, Steffi Graf and Chris Evert who were always fighting it out. We had a great rivalry some years ago with the Williams sisters (Serena and Venus), and then there are the likes of Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo and Victoria Azarenka who came up and won trophies too," she says.

"The new generation hasn't really stepped up to the plate. Serena is 34. When I was that age, I had already won my 18th Grand Slam at Wimbledon. Steffi had eight, and Monica Seles was also a multi-time Grand Slam winner. Serena hasn't had that competition through no fault of her own. She can't create a rivalry when she keeps beating every opponent who shows up. Many of the women haven't quite got to that point where they can compete with her on a regular basis."

While she prefers to enjoy the sport as a spectator and analyst, Ms Navratilova does get affected when controversial issues crop up in tennis from time to time.

The age-old debate about equal pay for male and female players cropped up again earlier this year when Raymond Moore - now the former CEO and director of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells - said that female players in the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) "ride on the coat-tails of the men". He went on to suggest that women should "go down every night on their knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have".

Even Djokovic, the world's best male player, weighed in - some say unnecessarily - when he claimed that men should "fight for more" money because their matches have more spectators than those played by women.

The men and women have received equal prize money at all four Grand Slams since 2007. They also get the same monetary rewards at "combined" tournaments where the men and women compete alongside one another. However, those tournaments that are run separately by the Association of Tennis Professionals (for the men) and the WTA (for the women) have differing amounts or prize money.

Ms Navratilova, a long-time campaigner for women's rights, responded at that time: "Novak Djokovic, as much as I love him, clearly doesn't understand why, when women and men play in combined tournaments, they must be paid equally. I thought we settled that issue years ago."

It's obvious that this is still a topic that rankles her. During the interview, she sighs in exasperation, even thumping the table lightly to drive home her point.

"I just wish people would shut up and play. It frustrates me... the arguments are so old-fashioned, out-of-date and so wrong. But I guess it's human nature, or maybe some people just wanting to get attention," she says.

"In America, there's a law that gives women the right to have a safe abortion and that was passed more than 40 years ago. Now they're trying to take that away. So you take one step forward, and then years later we're fighting it again. Once you make progress in something, you don't want to go back. You want to keep on building on it rather than having to go back to fight the same old battles."

It hasn't been the smoothest of seasons for women's tennis, to say the least. The tour was given a nasty jolt in March this year when its poster girl, the five-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova, announced at a hastily convened news conference in Los Angeles that she had failed a drugs test during the Australian Open in January. The 29-year-old tested positive for meldonium, a recently banned drug that she had been taking for 10 years for health reasons.

This reporter was told that the topic of doping was off-limits for this particular interview, but when another journalist sought her comments at a dialogue session later in the day at the Singapore Sports Hub, Ms Navratilova threw her support behind the Russian superstar.

She said then: "Players don't even take over-the-counter stuff unless they know it's 100 per cent safe. Maria made a big mistake, needless to say. But there is no doubt in my mind that she wasn't trying to cheat."

But when that same journalist tried to press Ms Navratilova for her views on equal pay, that was when she momentarily lost her cool. "Enough of all that", she snapped back, prompting the master of ceremonies to quickly change the topic.

Ms Navratilova has close links with many countries, but Singapore is extra special. She is the official legend ambassador for the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, the season-ending US$7 million tournament that features the top eight singles and doubles players competing for the coveted Billie Jean King trophy.

She was also recently named the new ambassador of the Racquet Club, the Singapore tournament's exclusive hospitality programme that hosts VIPs and corporate guests in private suites at a pavilion just beside the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

Ms Navratilova even has a suite named after her, although she admits she is often too busy with one function after another to even think about stepping in there to chill out. She quips: "Hopefully I'll have the time this year!"

She's attended the first two editions of the WTA Finals in Singapore, with three more to go. Singapore is the first Asia-Pacific city to host the prestigious event, which is widely regarded as the crown jewel of women's tennis.

Serena Williams won the inaugural tournament in 2014, and Agnieszka Radwanska triumphed last year. Tens of thousands of fans packed the Singapore Indoor Stadium to soak in the action, and Ms Navratilova feels the WTA Finals is proving just the spark for tennis to take off in a big way here.

"The organisers have done an amazing job to run an event like this, considering that Singapore has never had such a major tennis tournament before. I wish I was still a player coming to Singapore - they are really treated like queens," she says with a laugh.

"It's difficult to enter a market when the population doesn't really play a lot of tennis, but things are getting easier over time. There's social media and TV broadcasts that allow you to watch tennis practically all the time. In the old days, it was 'live' tennis matches that inspired people to play or watch it on TV, but now it is the TV that reaches out to the audience to come and watch the matches 'live'. The roles have reversed," she adds.

Championing tennis for all

Tennis may continue to have an "elitist" tag attached to it, but in Ms Navratilova's eyes, it should not be the case. Unlike other sports, it is a very "democratic" sport based on ability, and it does not matter whether a player comes from a rich or poor background.

"Tennis is a very diversified sport, you see all the different nationalities, players coming from all walks of life. If you know how to play the game, the ball doesn't know where you come from," she says.

When she does have some down-time, Ms Navratilova enjoys heading down to Coconut Grove, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Miami, where she plays tennis at one of the public courts. "It costs US$2 per hour. It's very affordable, and I have to pay the fees too, of course. Sometimes I'll give the guy working there a bunch of rackets, he thanks me for them but still collects US$4 from me for the courts," she says with another laugh.

"If you make the courts affordable, then tennis won't be elitist any longer. You can get a decent racket for just 50 bucks and it can last you for years. The key is to have enough courts out there for people to play on, and that level of accessibility has been the biggest downfall for the sport over the years. But things are improving."

Away from tennis, she continues to receive numerous invitations to speak at seminars and conferences around the world, on all kinds of topics such as fitness and health, and the role of women in business and sports.

Ms Navratilova is also heavily involved in charitable causes and supports organisations that benefit animal rights, gay rights, the environment and underprivileged children. Since she came out in 1981, she has become a global icon as an openly gay sports personality, and has worked closely with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) causes.

She was inducted into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame and received the National Equality Award from the activist group The Human Rights Campaign back in 2000.

On her days off, she enjoys spending time with her wife Julia Lemigova and their two daughters, who are aged 15 and 10. They live with "a whole bunch of animals" at home, including four dogs, two cats and two birds, one of which "has decided to mimic me and say all kinds of bad words".

Ms Navratilova doesn't quite know when she will call it a day for good and step away from tennis completely, simply because she is having too much fun.

"I'll stay on indefinitely, as long as people want to keep me and ask for me. I don't know. With TV nowadays, the wrinkles show up a lot more than in the old days. Maybe I'll have to sit further away or I might do more radio shows instead of TV," she says.

"I enjoy what I do so much. I really like staying with tennis and imparting my knowledge and sharing it with others. Hopefully, I can bring more fans to the sport that I love and which has given me such a great life."


MARTINA NAVRATILOVA

Former World No 1 tennis player

1956 Born in Prague

1972 Won Czechoslovakia national tennis championship

1973 Turned professional; made debut on US Lawn Tennis Association professional tour

1975 Won the French Open doubles, her first major title

1978 Won Wimbledon, her first major singles title

1979 First year-end World No 1 ranking

1981 Defected to US and took up American citizenship

1987 Won the triple crown by winning the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at the US Open

1994 Retired from full-time singles competition

2000 Inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame

2006 Won US Open Mixed Doubles, her final major title