Marvellous Martina still making Wimbledon smile

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
MartinaMartina Navratilova (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Martina Navratilova

The headlines on Wimbledon’s first Thursday talked of royalty, for it marked the first visit to the Championships by the Queen since Virginia Wade won the UK’s last singles title in 1977.

The Queen met the current champions, of course, but she also met the woman who many regard as the true queen of Wimbledon, Martina Navratilova.

Navratilova’s achievements on the tennis court are almost without parallel: 18 singles Grand Slam titles, 31 doubles titles and 10 mixed doubles titles. But her Wimbledon achievements surpass all-comers.

She had never even seen a grass court until a week before her first appearance at Wimbledon in 1973, but she was immediately hooked and, aged 18, reached the quarter-finals of what was to become her signature tournament in 1975.

This was also the year when, struggling to get visas to travel from the stifling Soviet regime in her Czech homeland, she was forced to defect after a semi-final defeat at the US Open. Missing her family, and with her confidence knocked, it would be almost three years before she and her tennis recovered to win her first singles Slam title: at Wimbledon in 1978.

That opened the floodgates, and she embarked on a record-breaking 13-year Wimbledon run during which she won nine singles titles—still a record for men or women—and made at least the semis in every year until 1994 (barring a quarter-final exit in 1991).

Navratilova’s athletic game and attacking style—coming to the net at every opportunity, a classic use of cross-court slice, a swinging left-handed serve—were made for grass, but her supreme fitness and a willingness to evolve and to work at the tactical game were just as vital. Indeed she claims that this willingness enabled her to win her ninth Wimbledon title in 1990, aged 33.

And she still loves Wimbledon with a passion. She has said: “Wimbledon is like a drug. Once you win it for the first time you feel you’ve just got to do it again and again and again.” That is just what she did.

In 2000, aged 43, she decided she was not ready to turn her back on tennis, and returned to a limited schedule, not on the ‘senior’ tour but with the current players on the full tour. She went on to win a dozen more doubles titles, including a 20th title at Wimbledon in the mixed doubles in 2003—a record equalled only by her friend and fellow tennis icon, Billie Jean King.

When Navratilova did finally hang up her racket, it was done in style after one final Grand Slam victory at Flushing Meadows with Bob Bryan. She turned 50 a month later.

What a treat, then, to have her back at the scene of her greatest achievements, Centre Court, where she has joined another former Wimbledon champion, Jana Novotna, in the Ladies’ Invitation Doubles event.

Those who stayed on after the men were done with their semis on second Friday were treated to a rather slower style of tennis, but one full of touch, placement, tactics and supreme skill. And as for speed—well, Navratilova still managed to close out the first set with a 92 mph serve.

It took the pair a while to hit their stride, but such is the competitive blood that runs in the veins of former champions that the Navratilova team took a tough first set and then raced away with a match-winning second. It was a similar pattern in all three of their round-robin encounters: second set scores of 6-1, 6-2, and 6-1.

In each match, Navratilova seemed to blossom as the scoreboard ticked over. Her serve was in good order, she strode to the net to strike her familiar angled, crisp volley, and could still teach many a 20-something player how to kill an overhead.

It is hard to reconcile the appearance and game of this woman with these two facts: She is 53, and she underwent surgery for breast cancer just months ago. What’s more, a few weeks before that, she took part in the “Hit for Haiti” exhibition at Indian Wells. She was the life and soul of the party, even though she almost certainly knew already her diagnosis.

So hers continues to be the story of a courageous, feisty, and generous woman who has always given her time and energy to political and social causes, and who also happens to be one of the world’s greatest living athletes.

Watching Navratilova in full flow, rushing the net, picking off every shade of volley to perfection, is still one of tennis’s joys. So for those who hung around for an extra hour after the headline-grabbing men had finished their day’s work, for those who crept down to the vacated front-row seats and soaked up the tennis and personality of the queen of Centre Court, it was a night to remember.

Let’s hope Her Majesty appreciated who the real star of Wimbledon was when she met ‘Queen Martina’ on first Thursday.

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