Martina Navratilova: 'It wasn't about the record, but no one believed me'

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The Independent Online

Martina Navratilova was in characteristically feisty form - memorably calling Andy Murray "a prat" - on the terrace of the players' restaurant at the All England Club yesterday, 24 hours after she hit her last competitive shot in the championships she has graced since 1973. Thanks to the good offices of the Sony-Ericsson WTA Tour, I managed to grab 20 minutes with the nine-times singles champion just before she dashed off to catch a plane to Prague, and asked her whether it was frustrating that, having finally been knocked out of both women's and mixed doubles, she had not managed to pull ahead of Billie-Jean King, the only woman as prolific as her at Wimbledon? King went into retirement with a remarkable tally of 20 titles, and now, so has Navratilova.

She heaved a deep sigh. "It wasn't about the record at all," she said.

"People keep saying that, but it so wasn't. I just wanted to win one more title here, period. I've been saying that all along but people don't seem to believe it. The first time I even thought about the record was when I read it in USA Today. It said: 'Martina Navratilova is coming back from retirement so she can break Billie-Jean King's record at Wimbledon.' I thought, 'Oh, that's right, we're tied at 20'. It was never about the record."

So what was it about, playing here until three months short of her 50th birthday, a time of life at which many tennis players have retired even from the veterans' competitions? "It was about playing as good as I possibly could," she said. "In 2003 I ended up winning the mixed. Leander [Paes] played fantastic and I played a great supporting role, but I wasn't playing nearly as good as I am playing now. For me it's always been about how well I can hold up at this age. You know, the radar gun doesn't lie. I hit a 107mph serve the other day, out wide. It would have been 110mph down the middle."

Despite such mini-triumphs, Navratilova has finally decided to call time on one of sport's most exalted careers, citing a desire to spend longer running her businesses, with her many animals, and with the partner she so sweetly describes as her "one and only". But how will she get those competitive juices flowing? Not by being the first to arrive at the local veterinary clinic, surely? She flashed a dazzling smile, which faded as quickly as it appeared. It is a disconcerting habit of hers, and means that one must rely on her eyes to know her mood. I fancy I spotted a twinkle, but it might just have been the reflection of one of yesterday morning's rare bursts of sunlight. "My life juice will flow," she said. "Competition is just an extra." But it was hard to imagine her playing non-competitive tennis, I persevered.

"Yes, it has never been my cup of tea. To really play well you have to train, and to train that hard you need to have a goal. Just to show up and be at 60 or 70 per cent? I don't know. I have never played for fun with people who are not as good as me, but if I could practise with someone as good as I am or better, I would do that all the time. If I could hit with Martina Hingis or McEnroe, for example. But it is hard to get that organised. Where I live, there is nobody like that."

Speaking of Hingis, did it amuse or alarm her to watch the career, then the retirement, then the emergence from retirement, of a woman who was named after her? Does it remind her how long she's been knocking around?"I don't need that to realise how long I've been around. But it's great for tennis that she's come back. It's a pleasure to see her again."

And so to her own Wimbledon career, which began on Court One with a 6-1, 6-4 win over our own Christine Truman-Janes so long ago that Slade's "Skweeze Me Pleeze Me" was top of the charts, and on Thursday ended with Mark Knowles on Court Two - which never more poignantly lived up to its reputation as the graveyard of champions - against Vera Zvonareva and Andy Ram.

In the 33 years between those two matches, she evolved from being regarded with suspicion by the crowds, to being gathered to the collective bosom. When and how did she think that happened? "I don't know. Some time in the late 1980s maybe, when Steffi started dominating and I wasn't the favourite any more. I won here six years in a row, don't forget, and no matter how much they like you they still want somebody else to win already. It was never an unfriendly relationship.

"Besides, I was a brat, quite frankly. I was just talking to Sue Barker about a match we played on Court One. The officiating was horrible, but I thought more calls went against me, and I said something about her being from England. 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." Another fleeting smile. "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." She paused. "And that's probably not wrong. He is where I was, and it takes one to know one. I may get criticised for that but he's 19, so we need to cut him some slack and we'll see how he shapes up."

If he shapes up even a fraction as well as Navratilova has, Britain will rejoice. As for her extraordinary longevity, she ascribes it mainly to racket development, although paradoxically she thinks that modern rackets are largely responsible for the game's ills.

"There is a size limitation, but that is not enough. I would definitely mandate some changes to the equipment, making it more difficult to hit good shots. You have to allow the feel players, the heirs to McEnroe and Hingis, to succeed. With these rackets, power just overpowers. Federer is an exception, but otherwise there are some unbelievable tennis players out there who are stretched to their limits by people who just hit the ball hard. The racket is an equaliser, and I don't like equalisers. I don't like it when it's windy, when its dark, or when the surface is poor, because they're all equalisers."

So, assuming that she would gather the racket manufacturers into a room and give them a tough talking-to, what else would she do if she were given absolute power over tennis? "There isn't time to tell you. I have a plane to catch. But I would certainly re-do the whole structure, particularly of the women's game. We have very little room for growth or innovation." OK, then let's just focus on the condition of British tennis. "Aiieeee," she cried, eloquently enough.

"I know Roger Draper [the chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association] has been trying to get a meeting with me, but I've been very, very busy. Hopefully, we can get together. I don't know enough about the system here to know how to fix it, but I do know that what you have is not good enough. You guys need to attract better athletes to the sport and keep them there."

The two fine athletes that are Justin Henin-Hardenne and Amélie Mauresmo will contest the women's final this afternoon, justifying Navratilova's pre-tournament prediction that a French speaker would claim the title. I asked whether she would root for one or the other, and also whether either of them reminded her of herself? "I'm rooting for a great match, which it should be, because I think they will bring out the best in each other. I didn't realise that there was some animosity between them, but I know they respect each other as athletes. Who reminds me of me? I guess those two are the closest out there because they serve and volley. They both have better backhands than I did, but I think I had a slightly better serve and, of course, a better volley."

So much for the past and the present, what of the future? What exactly will Navratilova be doing in her retirement from competitive tennis? "I'll be promoting my book, Shape Yourself, which is a great guide for people who want to get started on the road to better health. And I have a credit card, the Rainbow Card, which I co-founded 10 years ago and which gives money to gay and lesbian organisations in the US. It's going into Canada this summer and I'd like to expand into the UK and Australia. I will also continue to work for equal rights for gay and lesbian people. It frightens me how literally people want to take the Bible on the subject of homosexuality. They quote Leviticus, but Leviticus also promoted slavery. So we've done away with that part of Leviticus but we're hanging on to this bit? I'm sorry.

"I saw a great quote somewhere recently. It said, are we trying to imply that the Bible was so right that God has not allowed us to evolve for the past 2,000 years? Are we supposed to still live like that, offering your wife to a passing stranger as comfort, being punished by death for working on a Sunday? Of course we have evolved. Yet people try to impose these [ancient teachings] on us all. I'm not telling anybody to be gay. Have you ever heard of someone knocking on the door, saying 'Excuse me, I have good news for you, you too could be gay'? I take great exception to all that. So that's my fight now. Animal rights and gay rights."

And finally, just to return to the tennis tournament going on around us, what of the question on everyone's lips: is Federer the greatest ever? "I think so. The most complete player ever. And he can still improve, that's the scary bit. I know [Tony] Roche has been working on his volleying, and he can still volley better, but I don't know if he can hit his groundstrokes any better. The high backhand, yeah, but what one-hander doesn't have a hard time with the high backhand? It's the hardest shot in tennis, and everyone is vulnerable if you can get a high ball to their backhand, but nobody can do that consistently to Federer because he runs around and hits a forehand.

"He's absolutely brilliant." And so, in a different way, is she.

The Navratilova file: A left-hander's legacy

* PERSONAL STATISTICS Nationality US

Residence Nokomis, Fla

Date of birth 18 Oct 1956

Place of birth Prague, Cz

Height 1.73m (5ft 8in)

Weight 65kg (145lb)

Turned Pro 1975

Plays Left-handed

* CAREER PRIZE-MONEY

Total $21,400,871 (£11,932,462)

Singles

Career record 1,440-213

Career titles 167

Highest ranking No 1

Doubles

Career record 667-102

Career titles 176

Highest ranking No 1

* GRAND SLAM SINGLES WINS AUSTRALIAN OPEN (3)

1981 bt Chris Evert Lloyd

6-7, 6-4, 7-5

1983 bt Kathy Jordan

6-2, 7-6

1985 bt Chris Evert Lloyd

6-2, 4-6, 6-2

FRENCH OPEN (2)

1982 bt Andrea Jaeger

7-6, 6-1

1984 bt Chris Evert Lloyd

6-3, 6-1

WIMBLEDON (9)

1978 bt Chris Evert

2-6, 6-4, 7-5

1979 bt Chris Evert Lloyd

6-4, 6-4

1982 bt Chris Lloyd

6-1, 3-6, 6-2

1983 bt Andrea Jaeger

6-0, 6-3

1984 bt Chris Evert Lloyd

7-6, 6-2

1985 bt Chris Evert Lloyd

4-6, 6-3, 6-2

1986 bt Hana Mandlikova

7-6, 6-3

1987 bt Steffi Graf

7-5, 6-3

1990 bt Zina Garrison-Jackson 6-4, 6-1

US OPEN (4)

1983 bt Chris Evert Lloyd

6-1, 6-3

1984 bt Chris Evert Lloyd

4-6, 6-4, 6-4

1986 bt Helena Sukova

6-3, 6-2

1987 bt Steffi Graf

7-6, 6-1

*ALL TITLES AT GRAND SLAM EVENTS

AUSTRALIAN OPEN (12)

Women's singles (3) 1981, 1983, 1985

Women's doubles (8) 1980, 1982, 1983-85, 1987-89

Mixed doubles (1) 2003

FRENCH OPEN (11)

Women's singles (2) 1982, 1984

Women's doubles (7) 1975, 1982, 1984-88

Mixed doubles (2) 1974, 1985

WIMBLEDON (20)

Women's singles (9) 1978, 1979, 1982-87, 1990

Women's doubles (7) 1976, 1979, 1981-84, 1986

Mixed doubles (4) 1985, 1993, 1995, 2003

US OPEN (15)

Women's singles (4) 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987

Women's doubles (9) 1977, 1978, 1980, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1990

Mixed doubles (2) 1985, 1987

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