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‘I want to save lives’

health-and-fitness Updated: Apr 18, 2010 16:53 IST

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As I arrive for the interview, shake that famous left hand and set up my voice recorder, I realise I have somehow lost its battery. To fill in precious time, I make, what I think, is polite small talk: “Martina, I consider it worthwhile becoming a journalist just to meet you.”

Having landed at Heathrow only a few hours earlier, she then details her gruelling schedule over the last five days, consisting of scores of interviews, several flights, and missed nights’ sleep. Navratilova, of course, has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer – yet she seems buzzing with health. She is also beautiful – more so than she appears on TV or in photographs.

So what was behind her decision to go public with the illness? “I want to save lives by telling women to go for the test, and be vigilant, but there is a cost to me, for sure. Last week I did 20 interviews straight and the following evening, when I played tennis, I was exhausted – but it was emotional, not physical, exhaustion.

“I need to pace myself – I don’t want (the illness) coming back because I got so stressed trying to raise awareness.”

Now that Navratilova has gone public, she is bound to be contacted by women asking for support. “I will do it, of course, but it’s not easy. Doing all these interviews, I get asked, ‘How did you feel when you found out? How do you feel now?’ – you can’t escape it.

The world’s most famous lesbian, the most successful female tennis player of all time, is in the UK at the invitation of the gay rights organisation Stonewall. Last night, she delivered the keynote speech at its annual dinner and auction, alongside Gareth Thomas, the first out professional rugby player. This year’s theme is homophobia in sport, an issue Navratilova knows a lot about.

“It hardly occurs to anyone that sportsmen are gay,” she says, “but with women they almost have to prove they are straight. A journalist would never dare ask a male athlete, unless they were a figure skater, ‘Are you gay?’ But it is OK to ask a female player.”

I ask what can be done to encourage more sporting icons to come out. “Change has to come from the top. They should not allow the homophobic stuff – but it seems like it is zero tolerance of all other bigoted crap, and 95 per cent tolerance of anti-gay stuff.”

However, the UK, she says, is “way ahead” of the US in tackling homophobia. I tell her how important her coming out in 1981 was for lesbians at the time. She was the first decent role model we had, and remains one of a chosen few almost three decades later. Does it feel like a responsibility?
“Of course it is. I am a role model for kids who look up to me and to the game. But then I do something that the press picks up on, and straight people say, ‘Oh, that’s what those dykes are like.’”

It is true that Navratilova seems to have been in the press as much for her colourful affairs with women as she has for her tennis. Her third serious relationship with the novelist Rita Mae Brown, ended dramatically in 1981. The story goes that as Navratilova gathered her things to pack in her car, Brown saw her handgun lying on the floor, where it had been dropped. “I needed something to throw, and not realising it was loaded, threw it at the car,” Brown admitted at the time. The gun went off and shattered the rear window, missing Navratilova by
inches.

So who are the top female players in the closet? She says, there are no lesbian players in the top 10.“But where are the gay guys? I want to say: ‘Hello! How is it going to hurt you? Nobody is going to stop you from playing.’”

With so few female celebrities being openly gay, Navratilova must have felt alone in the wilderness – yet she is reluctant to criticise other people’s choices, only the reaction to those figures who have followed her lead.

- The Guardian