She may not have started in ideal shape, but Navratilova would dominate her sport
The magic of Martina
Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly Adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will revisit the full 50 at the end, but this week Ahmed Rizvi looks at tennis star Martina Navratilova.
When the American star Chris Evert played Martina Navratilova for the first time she remembers a pudgy but powerful Czechoslovakian girl across the net. "Though she was overweight and inexperienced, it was a close match," said Evert of that encounter at Ohio in 1973 when Navratilova was only 16. "I didn't know her, neither could I pronounce her name - but I knew she would be trouble if she got into shape."
Evert was right about Martina being "trouble" if she got into shape. She did take some time to shed those extras kilos, but once she did Martina Navratilova became synonymous with greatness and athleticism. Martina, today, holds the record for the most singles titles by any tennis player, male or female. She has won 167 singles titles over an incredible 30-year career, including 18 Grand Slams. She also won the women's singles title at Wimbledon a record nine times, reaching the finals on 12 occasions, including nine in a row from 1982 to 1990.
During the 1982, 1983 and 1984 seasons, she lost just six of the 264 singles matches she played. She also has the longest winning streak in singles history - 74 matches without loss. Martina also shares the record for the most consecutive Grand Slam singles titles - six - with Margaret Court and Maureen Connolly. She also reached 11 consecutive Grand Slam singles finals. Martina's doubles feats were as sparkling: she won 177 doubles title and 12 mixed doubles crowns. These included 41 Grand Slam conquests - 31 women's doubles and 10 mixed doubles, the last of which came at the 2006 US Open. The almost 50-year-old Martina, partnering Bob Bryan, beat Kveta Peschke and Martin Damm in straight sets for the 356th title of her astonishing career. That is nearly double Billie Jean King's second-place total of 179 titles among women. For the record, John McEnroe (156) is the leading man.
Nobody, ever, has had such a glittering trove of numbers. These remarkable stats led the tennis legend Billie Jean King to describe Navratilova as "the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles player who's ever lived". "I am not going to argue with Billie Jean," said Martina, during her recent visit to Dubai. "I know I am one of the greatest. I am probably the greatest player to play the game - but I will let other people say that."
Martina, though, was a late bloomer of sorts. She turned pro in 1973 at the age of 16 and won her first professional singles title in Orlando, Florida, in 1974, but it was not until she began to see the importance of physical fitness that her career really took off. Her private affairs also influenced her results on the court. Martina was still a teenager when, at the US Open in 1975, she made the decision to seek asylum in the United States. The Czechoslovakian Federation had threatened to curtail her travels abroad as they were irked by Martina's increasing "Americanisation".
In 1981, with the basketball star Nancy Lieberman, Martina began to overhaul her body and lost more than 14kgs. In the same year, on July 21 to be precise, Martina also became an American citizen and she celebrated that by winning the Australian Open - the final Grand Slam of the year. It marked the beginning of a new period in Martina's career: one of big successes and great records. In 1982, a prodigious Martina showed the world her new strength, both physical and mental, as she won a record 15 singles titles, which included her first victory at the French Open and the first of her six straight wins at Wimbledon. In 1983, her loss in the Roland Garros final, the season-opening Grand Slam, was her only defeat of the year. Her 86-1 win-loss record for the year is the best-ever winning percentage for a professional tennis player for a single season.
Again in 1984, she completed three-quarters of a Slam, but lost in the season-ending Australian Open semi-finals to her former compatriot Helena Sukova. In the next three years from 1985 to 1987, Martina reached the women's singles final at all 11 Grand Slam tournaments she entered, winning six of them. Her greatness went on from there, but she said: "My only regret is I didn't get started earlier. I didn't really get serious until 1981 when I was already 25 years old.
"I started working out and Renée Richards started coaching me then. I didn't have a coach for eight years. So if I had it all to do over again, I would get started with a full commitment when I was 18 instead of 25 or 26." You can only imagine what her record would be like if she could do it all over again. Her glory would bestride the peaks of the Mount Olympus. But even now, she sits on a pedestal that even the greatest aspire.
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