Martina Navratilova has been described as the greatest female athlete of this century. She is certainly one of the greatest athletes, female or male, of our time. And in November, she said farewell to singles play.
As a player, Navratilova was bold and smart, and she dared to do things that others before and since could only imagine. She single-handedly reinvented women's tennis, taking the boundaries and limitations of women's tennis and shoving them higher and wider.
As she entered New York's Madison Square Garden for the last match, more than 17,000 fans gave her a two-minute standing ovation while nearly 100 photographers captured the moment. Gabriela Sabatini won that final match, but Navratilova won a place in sports history.
During her 21 years, Navratilova won 1,650 matches, 19 Grand Slam titles and 167 singles titles overall. As sports writer Tom Weir in a commentary for The Washington Post said, "Her 74-match winning streak ought to rank right alongside Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. In 1982, her singles and doubles record was a combined 160- 7. Add up the regular-season victory totals of that year's champions from the World Series, Super Bowl and NBA Finals and they barely beat Navratilova, 162-160."
During a special taped tribute to Navratilova at Madison Square Garden, friend and long-time tennis rival Chris Evert said, "She revolutionized the game. She brought a fresh new honesty. She's never been afraid to speak out or say what she really thinks. And she always wore her heart on her sleeve." Whether laughing or crying, falling to her knees in disappointment or joy, running, swinging or lunging for that impossible passing shot she (as if by magic) managed to return, Navratilova always gave the game her best.
A red and gold banner bearing her name was raised in her honor, the first woman ever to be so honored in Madison Square Garden. Women still have a long way to go in achieving athletic equality as evidenced by the fact that Navratilova's banner hung in the Garden only a week, and only to be raised again for tennis matches.
Navratilova requested political asylum as an 18-year-old Czechoslovakian, while at Forrest Hills for the U.S. Open, in September 1975. She became a United States citizen in July, 1981. She hadn't planned to defect at 18, which meant that she wouldn't be able to see her family again, but when Czech officials were tipped that she might they denied her permission to travel to the Open. A leading Czeck tennis player at the time, Jan Kodes, talked the authorities into granting the visa, saying that Navratilova might win and that it would be good for Czech tennis.
Fourteen years later the Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia ended, and while Navratilova can't directly take credit, she certainly played her part. While her victories were not reported by the Czech press, she made their life difficult by dominating Wimbledon, one of the biggest sporting events in all of Europe, winning nine times. As her tennis carrier soared, Czechoslovakians strained to get a glimpse of her wherever they could, sometimes traveling to the boarder to pick up coverage by German television.
Navratilova didn't change the politics, but she embarrassed the politicians. The Czeck people knew there was something more out there beyond the barriers. Life could never be the same.
She dared to defect, she dared the game with her style and she dared to live her life her way. And for that she paid a price. Athletes who dominate their sport usually make millions in endorsements. Navratilova made almost none. First it was because she was rumored to be a lesbian, and then she had the self-confidence to not only confirm it, but to become a spokesperson for lesbian and gay civil rights. Navratilova is also vocal in her support of women's rights.
As a good-bye gift from tennis officials at Madison Square Garden, two female NYPD cops wheeled out a custom- made Harley-Davidson motorcycle. A clearly surprised Navratilova hopped on, turned the key and beeped the horn.
When asked about her future plans, Navratilova said, "Now I'm ready to get on with the rest of my life."