Too extraordinary to be a role model

Navratilova?s life has been too perfect to be emulated, writes Atul Sondhi.

india Updated: Sep 08, 2006 17:42 IST

In late seventies, when black and white TV ruled India and the much-awaited standard fare used to be Wednesday's Chitrahaar (a music show) and Sunday's movie, a chance encounter with an East European changed the world of a whole generation of Indian kids.

It were the highlights of 1978 Wimbledon final on Doordarshan that pitted glamorous Chris Evert, an American and the darling of the world, against an average looking, but well-built Czech, who answered to the name of Martina.

It was a fascinating duel lasting over three sets, which ended in a victory for the Czech lady, but more fascinating was the way she approached her game. Not content with firing winners from the baseline, Martina was unafraid to rush to the net at the very first opportunity and dish out winners after winners.

Later on, as our knowledge about the game and the English language grew, we found out that what she did was called serve-and-volley. But on that day, her efforts looked extremely manly.

Taking fight to the opponent, and that a woman was doing in a man's way, was an eye opener. Today it may be a standard fare in tennis as well as other walks of life, but at that time, it was a revelation for most.

Bold approach

Never count the record number of titles this 49-year-old has won. Even 344 singles and doubles WTA titles won't tell the whole story.

A staggering average of 11 titles per year in her 32 years of playing career would have been even better, had she not faced too many illustrious opponents in her career - the most formidable being Chris and Steffi.

The more important thing has been the way the Queen of Wimbledon, who will turn 50 this October, approached life. A bold, no-nonsense attitude made her controversial, but it never mattered to her. Martina never wanted her lesbianism should get public, but when it did, her response was ''so…?"

A widely circulated joke regarding her lesbian status, at that time was that Martina's game was so good because her racket was conditioned to repel balls! But Martina never gave it a damn. That's what made her the person she is.

In fact, when she retired from singles in 1994, a BBC tribute to Martina said ''Taking openly about her lesbianism has cost her lucrative sponsorships, but it has made her a beacon of courageous independence, visible far beyond the money-mad treadmill of world tennis.''

More importantly, it also called her ''too extraordinary to be a role model.''

M versus M

Martina was extremely critical of biases in life and her statement on Magic Johnson's thoughtless comment on promiscuity, was a clear testimony to it.

When the famous basketball player, in lighter vein, commented that his contracting HIV was inevitable because women were always ''lining up for him,'' Martina was furious.

Her no-holds-barred response was that if a heterosexual woman were found to be HIV-positive after sleeping with hundreds of men, she would be called "a whore and a slut" while in men "promiscuity is very much accepted."

Despite pressure, Martina never backed off from her charge of double standards. Once she took a stand, she held firm. Her life was just like her game - pay as if there is no tomorrow.

Champion forever

In the days of the cold war in mid-seventies, getting acceptance from the crowd and the media was extremely difficult initially. Repeatedly battering Chris Evert made it even more difficult.

''I came from a Communist country, lived here (in US) and started beating Chris (Evert) and it was freaky for them,'' she laughed in one of the interviews, while taking comfort in the fact that "players saw it differently".

"We (players) really don't see colour. We don't see sexual identity. We don't see where you're from as far as being a communist country or a capitalist country. We just look at another player and say, "God, she's got a really good forehand!"

Martina always thrived on challenges and defied age. That Martina-Bryan combination is still in contention for the mixed doubles title speaks volumes about her calibre. The ageing lady of tennis is still good enough for three-four more years on circuit!

Now, as this 49-year-old said before Wimbledon,that ''I want to move on to my next life."

One can bet that this next life will be the continuation what all she has done so far. A big long fight against unfair play - be it in sports or in life!

First Published: Sep 08, 2006 12:48 IST