Martina Navratilova - Singular Quality, Legendary Longevity

15 Feb 2010 by Matthew Zemek in Player Profiles

Margaret Smith Court won more Grand Slam singles titles than Martina Navratilova. So did Steffi Graf. Chris Evert won just as many Major singles championships as her good friend managed to do. If you wanted to say that Navratilova is not the greatest singles player in the history of women’s tennis, you could make a strong case.

Then again, an argument could be made that this 53-year-old native of the former Czechoslovakia, who has become an American citizen and a commentator for the Tennis Channel, is still the greatest singles performer the women’s game has ever seen. Very simply, if Gunther Parche hadn’t stabbed Monica Seles in 1993, Steffi Graf might never have won 22 Major tournaments, and Navratilova’s place in the tennis pantheon would be even more elevated than it already is.

But if you want to call Graf the best there ever was in a ladies’ singles match, that’s perfectly reasonable. Just don’t say the same thing for doubles and, on a larger level, the collection of all three tennis disciplines (singles, doubles and mixed). In terms of quality and achievement in three phases of her sport, Navratilova is clearly the best all-around tennis player who has ever lived.

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No, that’s not an exaggeration.

The same woman who came to America as a chubby, fast food-devouring teenager in the mid-1970s eventually turned herself into an imposing athletic specimen whose fitness and forcefulness won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 31 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles (an all-time record), and 10 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles.

She reached the Wimbledon singles final on 12 occasions, including nine straight years from 1982 through 1990. Most importantly, Navratilova won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon a record nine times. She and Billie Jean King – a mentor and friend (and even a doubles partner near the end of King’s career) – each won 20 Wimbledon titles, an all-time record; they shared one of them when they teamed up to win the women’s doubles crown in 1979.

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Navratilova is one of just three women to have accomplished a career Grand Slam in singles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles. She owns the Open Era record for most singles titles (167) and doubles titles (177). She recorded the longest winning streak in the Open Era (74 straight match wins) and three of the six longest winning streaks in the women’s open era.

Navratilova, Court, and Maureen Connolly – a star from the 1950s – share the record for the most consecutive Grand Slam singles titles, with six. Navratilova reached 11 consecutive Grand Slam singles finals, second all-time to Steffi Graf’s 13.

In women’s doubles, Navratilova and her most enduring partner, Pam Shriver, used their long reach and superb instincts at net to win 109 consecutive matches and capture all four Grand Slam titles in 1984. They also tied Louise Brough Clapp’s and Margaret Osborne duPont’s  record of 20 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles as a team.

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Need more numbers to put this phenomenal and expansive career into perspective? There’s a virtually endless supply of statistics when Martina Navratilova’s name emerges in a tennis conversation.

Navratilova didn’t just win 31 women’s doubles titles at Major tournaments; she reached 37 women’s doubles finals, which means that she and her various partners – usually Shriver, but sometimes King and also longtime singles rival Chris Evert – went 31-6 in championship matches at Big Four events.

Navratilova’s ability to make the 1994 Wimbledon women’s singles final (when she lost to Conchita Martinez) created one of many amazing statistics that can be attributed to the longevity of this well-conditioned competitor. By reaching a Major final at age 37, Navratilova created a 19-year gap between her very first Grand Slam singles final (in the 1975 Australian Open against Evonne Goolagong Cawley) and her last one.

But if you think that fact is rather remarkable – and it is - Navratilova’s staying power in doubles is even more astonishing in retrospect. Her last women’s doubles final at a Major – at the 2003 U.S. Open (with Svetlana Kuznetsova) came 28 years after her first one (at the 1975 French with Evert).

In mixed doubles, Navratilova set the bar even higher. Her first mixed doubles final at a Grand Slam tournament came at the 1974 French, when she paired with Ivan Molina. Her last mixed final at a Major took place in… wait for it… 2006, as she and Bob Bryan went the distance at the U.S. Open.

That’s right: Martina Navratilova reached two Grand Slam mixed doubles finals 32 years apart from each other. In a young person’s sport, that’s an off-the-charts accomplishment. Navratilova and Bryan won that U.S. Open mixed final when Navratilova was just one month short of her 50th birthday.

Words simply can’t describe the magnitude of that achievement. Even in her very late 40s, Navratilova could still own a doubles court, provided she had enough rest and recovery time in between tournaments. No female tennis player has been able to play that well for that long, at least not in the Open Era. If Billie Jean King set a standard for three-pronged excellence in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, Navratilova raised that standard to a loftier level.

An assessment of Navratilova’s career – and how triumphant it ultimately proved to be – wouldn’t be complete without at least some acknowledgment of the struggles this outspoken woman endured in her process of maturation. Navratilova was overcome with emotion when a New York crowd supported her in the 1981 U.S. Open singles final, a match she barely lost (in a deciding third-set tiebreak) to Tracy Austin.

Navratilova cried after the match, an action many attributed to the pain of defeat; however, the outpouring of tears was actually a response to the crowd’s recognition of the immigrant’s recently-established American citizenship.

That memory turned into something painful in 1983, when Navratilova – back in the U.S. Open final (she didn’t reach that stage in the 1982 tournament) – rolled through Chris Evert in straight sets. Partly because the match was a blowout (6-1, 6-3), and partly because Evert was the darling of both the American public and the American mass media, Navratilova got a tepid reception upon winning the match, in a scene that would be repeated in the 1984 final as well.

Navratilova had a very difficult time controlling her emotions on the court in front of crowds that supported an opponent, and this only made a dominant champion even less popular when she ruled women’s tennis in the mid-1980s.

When Navratilova then endured a public dispute with Judy Nelson, a lover and close confidant, in 1991, the reality of her life as a lesbian became known to more tennis fans and to the general population at large. It was only when she grew older – and won fewer titles – that crowds warmed to her.

In a related vein, it was only when homosexuality became more accepted in mainstream American life that Navratilova received endorsement deals and was invited to pitch various products. Her success – particularly in the 1980s – did not accompany the off-court financial windfall Chris Evert was able to make as a heterosexual woman with a more polished and reserved manner.

Navratilova didn’t just achieve a great deal on the tennis court, then, in 33 years of competition (she turned pro in 1975, but started playing the big tournaments in 1973). She fought through her own internal struggles and a number of financial setbacks to become the champion and person she is today.

Country                                                       United States

Birth Date                                                   October 18, 1956

Residence                                                   Sarasota, Florida

Height                                                          5 ft 8

Weight                                                         144 lbs.

Year Turned Pro                                     1975 — Retired 2006

Highest Rank - Singles                          No. 1 (July 10, 1978)

Highest Rank – Doubles                       No. 1 (September 10, 1984)

Career Prize Earnings                           US $21,626,089

Grand Slam (Singles)                             18 titles

Australian Open                                      3 (1981, 1983, 1985)

French Open                                             2 (1982, 1984)

Wimbledon                                               9 (1978, 1979, 1982-’87, 1990)

U.S. Open 4 (1983, 1984, 1986, 1987)

Grand Slam Women’s Doubles          31 titles

Grand Slam Mixed Doubles               10 titles

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