Martina Navratilova: Up for the fight

No woman can match her feats on the tennis court. But now, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she faces a challenge of a different order
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Not many sporting icons could have diverted the spotlight from Tiger Woods this week, but Martina Navratilova did so, albeit for a most unfortunate reason; the revelation that the great tennis champion has breast cancer and will shortly undergo a course of radiotherapy was front-page news around the world.

Mercifully, her chances of a complete recovery are high, and yet I'm sure mine wasn't the only home in which the story caused exclamations of shock, not least because Navratilova, the 53-year-old nine-times Wimbledon singles champion, has long seemed like the very embodiment of physical and to some extent emotional invulnerability. She told People magazine, the publication which broke the news, that she had cried when she found out. While it's hardly surprising for someone just diagnosed with cancer to be reduced to tears, Navratilova explained it from the perspective of a woman who had considered herself unassailable, the same mental strength that won her all those titles over so many years. "I feel so in control of my life and my body and then this comes," she said.

As for the rest of us, it shouldn't be any more shocking when a famous sports star gets cancer than when a household name in music or acting is stricken, or for that matter your next-door neighbour or the woman at the launderette. And yet it always is, somehow, even though we know full well that the disease is no respecter of physical fitness – witness the long list of great sporting achievers it has attacked, some of them fatally while they were seemingly in the very prime of life, such as the runner Lillian Board, a 400m silver medallist at the 1968 Olympic Games, who died barely two years later aged only 22. Moreover, the cyclist Lance Armstrong, one of the fittest sportsmen in the world, was only 25 when in 1996 he was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer, from which he is happily in full remission.

Navratilova is not as youthful as they were and she has at long last retired from top-level competitive tennis, but even now it's hard to think of many higher-profile symbols of female strength and vitality. Practically her whole life has been a study in fortitude of one kind or another.

Surviving cancer is in a sense just the latest of a series of extraordinarily formidable challenges that she has confronted, and so far overcome, starting when she was 18. Having just lost to Chris Evert in the semi-final of the US Open, she walked into the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York City and told them that she wished to defect from her communist homeland, Czechoslovakia. Her Czech citizenship was promptly stripped from her, with all the pain that must have entailed, but two years ago she had it restored.

She maintained that this was largely a symbolic, sentimental gesture, and pointed out that she had retained her US citizenship, but there were nevertheless those who accused her of political posturing. After all, a few months earlier she had declared that she was "ashamed" of America under the leadership of George W Bush. In 2002 she had even said, "The most absurd part of my escape from the unjust system is that I have exchanged one system that suppresses free opinion for another. The Republicans in the US manipulate public opinion and sweep controversial issues under the table. It's depressing. Decisions in America are based solely on the question of how much money will come out of it and not on the questions of how much health, morals or environment suffer as a result."

This was inflammatory stuff. Navratilova was by no means the only celebrity to articulate such opinions of America in the age of Bush, but she was the only one who had been given political asylum by the country she now vehemently criticised. Yet when the TV presenter Connie Chung effectively accused her of biting the hand that had fed her for so long, she bravely and disarmingly responded that she was doing precisely the opposite, demonstrating her loyalty to her adopted country by taking full advantage of the freedom of expression it had granted her, and candidly pointing out its faults.

All the same, her perceived anti-Americanism inevitably provoked the hysterical ire of the nation's right-wing radio talk show hosts, who targeted her as a motormouth and an ingrate. And what's more, a lesbian motormouth and ingrate.

Navratilova came out in 1981, long before homophobia became unfashionable. Even at genteel Wimbledon she was openly reviled by crowds who preferred their female tennis stars to be paragons of femininity. When even the commentators pointed out that she played tennis like a man, it was, aptly enough considering the arena, the most backhanded of compliments. And public antagonism was further fuelled by the fact that Navratilova's fiercest rival for the first half of her career was the pretty and heterosexual Evert.

By the time she retired, however, she was positively cherished as a Wimbledon institution. I interviewed Navratilova there in 2006, shortly after she announced that she was finally bringing the curtain down on one of the most exalted careers in sport, and an association with the All-England Club that had begun with a win over Britain's own Christine Truman Janes so far back in time that the record at the top of the charts was Slade's "Skweeze Me Pleeze Me". I asked her when she began to notice that she was more loved than loathed by the Wimbledon crowd, and she replied that it probably started in the late 1980s when Steffi Graf had emerged to put an end to her long period of dominance.

Characteristically, though, for she is the least self-pitying of individuals, she added that a lot of the flak had been fully deserved. She'd once played a match against Britain's Sue Barker, she recalled, in which she loudly questioned the impartiality of the umpire. "All hell broke loose, and of course it was a stupid thing to say. I always told it from the heart and paid the price. I don't think it was because Sue was English, the officiating was just bad. But I paid for that for a few years here. Now, of course, I can say pretty much anything I want and get away with it. I could even say that Andy Murray is a prat. And that's probably not wrong. He is where I was, and it takes one to know one."

This was typical Navratilova; honest, feisty, self-deprecating and controversial. I didn't find her especially likeable – at least once I realised that the dazzling smile tends to disappear as quickly as it appears, and rarely reaches her eyes – but it's hard to think of a sports star more deserving of our respect, not merely for her remarkable achievements on court (no man or woman can match, or probably ever will match, her 167 career singles and 177 doubles titles) but for her unwavering courage off it. She has never flinched from an unpopular comment or cause if she has considered it to be right, nor have many refugees from communism, once they have sunk into the comforting embrace of the United States, continued to rail quite so publicly not just against the evils of Stalinism but also the frailties of capitalism.

In recent years she has espoused animal rights as ferociously as she continues to campaign for the rights of gay and lesbians, putting large sums of her considerable fortune where her considerable mouth is, and addressing issues with unfailing eloquence and intelligence. It is not only the sporting world that is lucky to have her, but also the more needy world of inequality and cruelty, and long may she continue to bestride them both.

A life in brief

Born: 18 October 1956, Prague, Czechoslovakia.

Family: Her parents divorced when she was three and her father subsequently committed suicide. Stepfather Miroslav became Martina's first tennis coach. She has one sister, Jana, who lives in Sweden.

Career: Won the Czechoslovakian National Tennis Championship title in 1972 at the age of 15 but had defected to the United States by the time of her glory years. Took her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 1978 and went on to win the tournament a further eight times. She won every Grand Slam at least twice in her career and in 1984 held all Grand Slam titles simultaneously. Retired in 1994 but made a comeback in 2000, winning several mixed doubles Grand Slams before retiring for good in 2006.

She says: "I have loved men and women in my life; I've been labelled 'the bisexual defector'. Want to know another secret? I'm even ambidextrous. I don't like labels. Just call me Martina."

They say: "The greatest singles, doubles, and mixed doubles player who's ever lived." Billie Jean King