Saturday, January 19, 2019

20 Minutes with a Tennis Legend

Credit: Albert Gurries II
Martina is THE Martina--not Martina McBride!

Martina Navratilova is the greatest female tennis player in the history of the sport...although not everyone agrees.

I had a chance to talk with Martina Navratilova for 20 minutes the other day to plug an upcoming charity fundraiser starring Martina and Gigi Fernandez. I called her in Paris and at first I thought oops--maybe I caught her on a bad day.

“You’re late,” she said.

(I was exactly one minute late—I forgot to dial the international code. So, I did what I always do—diffuse an awkward moment with some humor)

“I write for a publication called The Marina Times in San Francisco, and my editor told me that if I can get a good interview with you, maybe they can change the name to The Martina Times.”

(She laughed. Whew, I thought)

Q: It seems like you do a ton of fundraising for PETA and so many other organizations. Is it almost like a full-time job?

A: Yes, it could be if I said yes to everything. The key is to say no sometimes because there is only one me and you can only do so much and then I have to pay the rent. I have to pick my spots, so I stick with things that I believe in and work with causes I want to be involved in and that make sense to me.

Q: We recently watched Unmatched, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about your lifelong friendship and rivalry with Chris Evert and it’s a wonderful documentary. Can you think of a rivalry in professional sports that is anything even close to the one that existed for so many years between you and Chrissy?

A: I can’t think of one. Writers have mentioned Ali and Frazier, but they only fought against each other three times total? Ted Williams and DiMaggio, but they never really faced each other. Palmer and Nicklaus in golf, for instance? I can’t think of one close to what we went through, because we were #1 and #2 in the world and then we would switch, so there isn’t anything else like that, I think.

Q: You had a trainer for a while who told you not to be so chummy with Evert, because she was the enemy, correct?

A: Yes, Nancy Lieberman was my trainer for a while and she was so competitive that she told me, “Chrissy has something you want and you just can’t be hanging out with her and being all buddy buddy.” And she was wrong about that, but in the end I learned that I did play differently against friends; I was nicer. It was like I didn’t mind losing against my friends. It was telling myself, “Hey, it was Chris who beat me—it’s not that bad.” I needed to get that killer instinct, but I think that Nancy Lieberman took it too far and Chrissy and I were able to find a nice balance eventually. Chris herself had a hard time being close to me, and she had to stop playing doubles with me, because once I started beating her, she didn’t want to hang out with me either. First it came from her and then I started backing off as well. Then we became closer after we quit playing, because then we weren’t competing against each other. Even in the heart of competition, we never lost the empathy and respect that we had for each other.

Q: You were on the reality show, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Outta Here and you lost to somebody named Joe Swash?

A: Well, I didn’t actually lose. I finished second out of 12 people. There are so many so-called celebrities out there due now to these reality shows. It’s kind of bizarre. Look at this flight attendant who slid out of a plane, now he’s getting his own show. Today, you can be famous just for being famous. It’s called “instant celebrity”. I get calls all the time to be on reality shows, but I haven’t found one I want to do. Dancing with the Stars has been recruiting me, but I can’t do those high heels and I just don’t see myself dressed up like that. It’s just not me. The Apprentice would be fun, but they offered me such little money to be on it. I don’t need to be on TV that bad.

Q: I also read somewhere that you’re a pescatarian, which means you only eat fish for your animal protein?

A: I also eat some meat now, but only very little. I was a total vegetarian for seven years and then I discovered that my body was screaming for animal protein, so I started eating meat, but only as little as possible. Your body chemistry changes as you get older and I want to get back to the point of not eating meat again, but not right now I eat primarily fish. I won’t eat lobster because I’ve seen them alive in the water, and I don’t want to kill them. They have to live so long to get to a decent size and I just feel guilty about it.

Q: Speaking of lobster, you played for the Boston Lobsters, a Women TennisTeam League team in the ‘70s. Why hasn’t team tennis be a success in this country?

A: Well, I think because people still see tennis as an individual sport. I loved playing on a team and I thought it was good for the spectators to see so many different top players in 1.5 hours. You don’t get to witness that in a standard tournament format. Then, the fans get to see the same players playing week after week, so they build a bond with the members of their team. In a tournament, after two days three quarters of the field is gone, and if you didn’t get tickets to the finals, you’re out of luck. I don’t really know why team tennis hasn’t taken, other than maybe people don’t see tennis as a team sport. I do remember that the money wasn’t that great. I made $60,000 for the season for 40 matches. We were grossly underpaid. Players get more for first round doubles today!

Q: I know you’ve been on The Howard Stern radio show more than once and you’re a good friend with Robin Quivers. Have you gotten heat from your management or from the public for being on that show?

A: Not really. Robin is a friend of mine and I have a standing offer to be on the show. Howard is very respectful of me on the show. He’s very bright and says exactly what he feels. I wasn’t worried, because I knew I could hold my own with him. I respect the man and in many ways, we agree politically.

Q: I read somewhere that a tennis writer chose you as the #2 best tennis women’s player of all time behind Steffi Graff. I found that surprising. Don’t people pretty much consider you as the greatest female tennis player of all time?

A: Most do, but it will always be debated, just like the debate on the men’s side. Not everyone will love me and that’s just fine. I’m not all concerned about how writers or anyone else sees my career, because I’m happy to have made a living playing the game I love, and that’s enough for me. Awards and recognition are nice, but really in the end, it all about how you acted and what you achieved.

Q: What is your favorite Czech food?

A: Anything with mushrooms in them is my favorite, especially truffles. White truffles are coming into season right now and I love them.

About the Writer

Ed Attanasio is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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3 comments on 20 Minutes with a Tennis Legend

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By BusinessLife on October 04, 2010 at 01:44 pm

Who does she consider the up and comers who are talented women's tennis players? I loved watching her play. She and Bjorn Borg were my favorites growing up. Thanks for sharing the great interview. :)

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By Akadia88 on July 23, 2014 at 05:08 am

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By Anderson12 on December 15, 2014 at 01:05 am

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