By Catherine Prendergast
Martina Navratilova appeared at the Chicago Humanities Festival yesterday for a sit-down interview with Chicago Tonight correspondent and 2009 World Champion triathlete, Elizabeth Brackett. Addressing the festival theme, Animal: What Makes us Human, Martina talked about living with her aging body to an audience of 400 aging bodies (the event was co-sponsored by the AARP for which Martina serves as Fitness Ambassador).
Although a video montage of Martina the GOAT’s greatest hits kicked off the hour, it was Martina the Human who ran onstage and claimed to be out of breath. She seemed determined to convince us that for all her achievements, she is really just one of us. Doubt it? Here’s her evidence:
She has struggled with her backhand:
Although her father continued to coach her “over the phone” for a few years after she defected to the United States, “he had a bad backhand and my original coach, George Parma, had a bad backhand and so I had a bad backhand—it was just a slice, slice, slice.” In 1981, Renée Richards stepped in and fixed it.
She’s chafed against stereotypes:
Her mother made her play hockey in figure skates, because she didn’t consider hockey skates “feminine” enough. But the girly white skates didn’t cut it for a fast break.
She once gained twenty pounds in two weeks:
On her first tour to the United States at the age of 16, Martina had to buy a new pair of shorts in Dallas to accommodate her sudden girth. She wasn’t eating junk food, she explained, “just too much. I’d have two steaks for dinner, or two hamburgers, or whatever.”
She’s not getting any younger:
Her message to the crowd was to keep doing what you love as long as you love it (hat tip to Federer, there), but to listen to your body. She suggested exercising for shorter periods more frequently as you age. That, and lowering your expectations until they’re in the ballpark of realistic.
She now does yoga:
Twice a week. She also rides a bike, plays hockey, and, as we know, plays tennis in Legends here and there. “I have a family, two little girls, 8 and 12, we play a little tennis. Their Mom really wants them to play tennis, but I’m like, ‘Oy.’”
She wasn’t always so Zen about aging:
“It gets frustrating because you lose just a little bit. I think in basketball it’s obvious because you can’t dunk anymore, or in track and field, you can’t run as fast. It’s very specific. Tennis is much more subjective. You’re not really sure because you feel great. Yet I would play a match and I would set up the point just right and I’d finally get that forehand volley that I wanted down the line—and I would just miss it by this much. Why? If I replayed it in my head, I didn’t do anything wrong. But ten years ago I could hit that volley with my eyes closed. Didn’t have to think about it. Boom. Point over. Now I’m trying really hard and I just miss it…. It just pisses you off.”
She gets bored during five-setters:
“Yes, you have fabulous five set matches but it takes so long to get to that fabulousness. And then you win that five set match and you’re done for the next one….I think the matches are too long and the courts are slower so it takes longer to put the ball away. You don’t have the quick points, and the players pay the price the next day. At the very least there should be a tiebreak in the final set. If you can’t figure out who is the better player after three sets, I don’t know, but we’re talking about the health of the players in the long term.” So, no, she doesn’t think women should start playing best of five.
She’d like to see more kissing:
Particularly at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Given that the IOC has failed to act decisively in the wake of Russia’s announced ban on homosexual athletes, Martina proposes an Olympic love-in: “I think there should be a lot of kissing going on. Everybody kiss everybody!” But she also hedged, acknowledging that violence against gays and lesbians has increased since Russia’s anti-gay legislation was enacted, seemingly with the blessing of law enforcement. “It’s just a huge step backwards. It’s very saddening.” Martina’s partner is originally from Russia. They are unsure if they can return to visit.
She would have beaten Bobby Riggs:
Any pro female player would beat an aging male player if the timing was right, she argued. So why didn’t Margaret Court? “Court had a bad day.”
She gets trolled:
Anyone who follows @martina on Twitter knows she speaks her mind, whether the subject is religion, politics, or the disappearing line between the two. But we don’t often see the hostile tweets she gets for being so outspoken. At the post-talk reception she shared a few: “I’ve been asked to go back to the Czech Republic if I don’t like it here. I thought the whole point of living here was to try to make a difference.”
She remembers her first boyfriend:
“Yeah that worked out really well,” Martina laughed of her relationship with Thomas Emmrich, a tennis player from the former German Democratic Republic. Emmrich was one of several people she recalled whose careers were ruined by communism. “He couldn’t get out of the country. He would have won Wimbledon. There is no doubt in my mind.” (Emmrich’s son is now playing doubles on the tour.)
Her toughest losses were off the court:
When asked if she had any regrets: “I only regret that I had to leave my country to be able to do what I did, and lose all that time with my family most of all—my grandmother, my parents, my sister. Can’t ever have that time back. If I think about it I start crying so I won’t.
She has some words of wisdom for the young ones:
American tennis is in trouble because “the rest of the world has caught up.” In remarks during the post-talk reception, Martina suggested that if Americans want to succeed in tennis, they need to get off their collective ass: “American kids have it too easy, to be frank, and they’re not as motivated…. If you can take a kid from Croatia, they run to the tennis court. I had to take the bus and the train and walk a mile with all my gear. American kids get driven. The only exercise they get is actually on the tennis court. And then they get driven back.”
Of course, the rest of the world has not caught up to Serena Williams, who Martina observed is playing great tennis, but enjoys a period of very little competition, a “bubble” much as Federer enjoyed before Nadal stepped up his game.
She knows when to surrender:
On facing her diagnosis of breast cancer in 2010: “It’s not anything you can do anything about. When you have knee surgery you do rehab, and you’re good. You don’t rehab your boobs. So I had a lumpectomy and then radiation, and then you hope.”
She counts her blessings often:
In fact, every time she goes grocery shopping. “Growing up in Czechoslovakia we had to get groceries every day because we never had a refrigerator, and you were happy if they had everything that you needed. There were shortages of all the everyday necessities. Now I go to the grocery store and, wow! I’m still amazed. I still appreciate it to this day.”
She draws the line at ice baths:
“I did that once, that was enough.”
She is all too human:
Again and again during the hour, Martina established her common ground with others: her interviewer, an ovarian cancer survivor in the audience, aging people, gay people, all people. She is one of the greatest among us, but she is still one of us, a human being first and foremost. I left convinced there are worse things to be.
Catherine Prendergast writes about Eastern Europe and tennis. Her book, Buying into English: Language and Investment in the New Capitalist World, chronicles Czechoslovakia’s transition out of communism.