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Navratilova: A legend for all ages

Martina Navratilova has been playing tennis so long she's outlasted even the phenom named after her _ Martina Hingis.

india Updated: Jul 08, 2003 14:57 IST
PTI

Martina Navratilova has been playing tennis so long she's outlasted even the phenom named after her _ Martina Hingis.

Navratilova is in a league now with George Foreman and Jack Nicklaus, champions all at 46, and Nolan Ryan, who still overpowered hitters at the same age.

Is one a more amazing athlete than the other? Is it tougher to race around tennis courts for two weeks in winning the Wimbledon mixed doubles than it is to hold the heavyweight title, capture the Masters or throw 95 mph (153 kph) fastballs?

Or, as in Navratilova's case, is it even more remarkable that she won two Grand Slam titles at that age, one at the Australian Open in January and a second Sunday at Wimbledon? She won both with India's Leander Paes, a relative spring chicken at 30.

Rather than quibble about the merits of each of those feats, let us simply celebrate them all and the message they send to the rest of us who retreat too quickly into early dotage.

It was a message not lost on the packed Centre Court crowd that showered her with cheers in the twilight, many fans misty-eyed as Paes spoke eloquently of being grateful to be "the vehicle" helping a legend break records.

Eight years after last winning here, she tied Billie Jean King with 20 Wimbledon titles _ a record nine in singles, seven in doubles, four in mixed _ became the oldest woman to win the mixed doubles, and moved within four of Margaret Court Smith's 62 major trophies.

In her prime 20 years ago, Navratilova said, she played to be No. 1, to win the Grand Slams and try to become the greatest of all time.

"It was all very selfish," she said.

This time around, she just wanted to see what it would feel like to play again, to unleash the inner athlete for the sheer love of the game, not the trophies or the records. Yet, when she and Paes started winning, she saw the effect she had on others. "The response that I've gotten from the people has been such that I just didn't want to stop," she said, "because people are saying how inspired they were by what I'm still doing out there.

"And that's what my message has been: 'Don't let age ... bring you down or make you think that you shouldn't be doing something."' There was a time when the Czech-born Navratilova felt like an outcast in her adopted America, ostracized by narrow-minded critics and advertisers who couldn't tolerate her lesbian lifestyle or candid voice.

Times change, and if there are still many who have not embraced her, there are many more who have come to admire her courage, honesty and tenacity. They come up to her wherever she goes.

"Little kids that didn't see me play, didn't even know who I was," she said, "now they're, like, 'Hey, Martina!' They saw me maybe on 'Sesame Street,' but they didn't see me play. Teenagers getting off the ski lift: 'Hey, Martina, you rock.' And then the middle-aged housewives in the country clubs going absolutely bonkers when they see me, say, 'I can't believe what you're doing. I'm going to get out there and do more.' Older people, too. ... It runs the gamut, totally.

"And that's what's amazing, you know, that because I hit a fuzzy yellow tennis ball, that inspires people to do more with life. It just doesn't get any better than that."

Navratilova changed women's tennis in her time, putting a premium on training and diet. She is still lean and quick and praises Serena Williams, winner of her sixth Grand Slam singles title Saturday, for raising the bar in the game today with a taller, more muscular body. "If we were playing against each other, I think it would still be a good matchup," Navratilova said of an imaginary match in her prime. "Serena has the potential to be the greatest of all time. There's no doubt about that, because she's got the size."

Navratilova had her own inspirational heroes. One, who also became a dear friend, died during Wimbledon. The actress Katharine Hepburn, who was 96, loved tennis and particularly admired Navratilova for the streak of independence they both shared. "She was a pioneer and she was a woman way ahead of her time," Navratilova said. "She just did her thing.

Wore those trousers, didn't care. She was the first woman, I think, to take control of her career way back when the studios didn't let you do that. She didn't let any social ideas limit her. And that's what it's about, doing what's your passion, what's in your heart." Navratilova said she had been trying to get Hepburn to come watch her play at Wimbledon since the 1980s, but Hepburn told her she was too nervous watching her so she never came.

"But I know she was watching," Navratilova said, her eyes glistening as she pointed a finger to heaven. "When I heard the news of her passing, I thought, 'OK, Kate, this one's going to be for you."'