Less than two weeks after ending her tennis career with a mixed doubles win at the U.S. Open, Martina Navratilova is back home in Sarasota, Fla., trying to catch up on things as she prepares to get on with the rest of her life.
She’ll be 50 in a matter of weeks and, she says, has given up professional tennis for good. Though she retired from the women’s tour in 1994, she returned in 2000 to play doubles, adding a dozen titles to her resume during the seven seasons of her second career, including three grand slam, mixed doubles championships.
She won the Australian Open title with Leander Paes in 2003, and later that year the pair triumphed at Wimbledon, giving Navratilova a record-tying 20th Wimbledon championship, matching Billie Jean King. But perhaps no title was as sweet as her last one with Bob Bryan at the U.S. Open. Everyone in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sept. 9 knew it would be the last match she ever played at a major tournament, and she played brilliantly, defeating the team of Kueta Peschke and Martin Damm in straight sets.
“It was really sweet; my career ended the way it was supposed to end,” Navratilova says via telephone. “I played really good ball. It was satisfying on so many levels.”
With her on-court play complete, Navratilova finally has some time for off-court activity, which includes receiving a lifetime achievement award on Sept. 26 from Lambda Legal in Los Angeles “for a lifetime of courage, integrity and commitment to the LGBT community.”
“We see her as just being an outstanding spokeswoman for our field,” says Katherine Gabel, director of Lambda’s Western Regional Office. “She’s been out front and devoted to our cause, an inspiration and a role model who gives back to her community.”
Navratilova said the award seems premature, but she is grateful. “I feel like it’s too soon, like I haven’t done everything I want to do. Still, it’s nice to be recognized in the midst of the battle. I totally stand by everything Lambda Legal has been doing. For me, it’s not just about equal rights for lesbians, but for human beings. I’ve been fighting that battle for a long time.”
Even as a teenager on the women’s tour, Navratilova never backed down from a challenge. In 1975, after losing a semifinal match to her then-doubles partner Chris Evert at the U.S. Open, she defected from then-Communist Czechoslovakia. She was just 18.
After that, she didn’t worry much about what anyone thought, even though she was a lesbian at a time when no other athlete had come out while at the top of their sport.
“Once you leave your family behind and don’t know when you will see them again, everything else is peanuts,” she says. “I personally couldn’t see what was wrong with being gay. I never saw being gay as a negative. I did see it as a difficulty, but I was ready to fight the good fight.”
Billie Jean King says she remembers Navratilova always being very upfront and honest. “She’s always said her mind,” King says. “She’s really good that way because she doesn’t worry about consequences.”