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Earlier this year, longstanding tennis historian Joel Drucker commenced a three-part series on a trio of WTA icons - Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. The first piece, published this spring just prior to the French Open, focused on Evert. Now, on the eve of the US Open, he zooms in on Navratilova - who 30 years ago defeated Evert in a thrilling three-set final to earn the second of her four US Open singles titles ('83-'84, '86-'87). Disclosure: Drucker and Navratilova have worked together in television for many networks, including HBO, TNT and, since 2007, Tennis Channel.
For some tennis champions, the path to greatness is rapid, these players coming out of the box with the batteries included. Less than three years after making her Grand Slam debut, Chris Evert was ranked number one in the world. Ditto for Tracy Austin and Martina Hingis. Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon the second time she played it.
Others take longer to assemble their various components. In many cases, the careers of these players follow a "B.C." and "A.D." pattern, their path to success clearly marked by a significant event. Though Kim Clijsters had reached the number one ranking in 2003, her 2005 US Open victory - following four losses in Grand Slam finals - boosted her to new heights. Billie Jean King had been a top player for five years before a loss in the 1965 US Championships showed her what it meant to truly have a killer instinct. The next summer she'd win the first of her 12 Grand Slam singles titles.
BC: The Passion to Play
For Martina Navratilova, the line separating past and future came in the spring of 1981. What's amazing in Navratilova's case was that by that that point she'd not only held the number one ranking but had also won two Wimbledon singles titles, beating Evert in both the '78 and '79 finals. According to Evert, "I couldn't play my game against her. Her serve, her volleys, the way she moved - I had to be on my toes with her all the time."
Since the time Navratilova had picked up a racket at age four, she'd always been a student of the game. As a child she'd literally felt the tennis in her hands, rolling the dirt and chalking the lines on the clay courts where she'd learned to play. Navratilova's maternal grandmother, Agnes Semanska, had been a world-class player, beating Vera Sukova (the '62 Wimbledon runner-up and mother of future WTA player Helena Sukova). At age nine, Navratilova worked with another Czech champion, George Parma.
Navratilova's role models were an iconic threesome: King's high octane, netrushing energy; Margaret Court's smothering qualities; and most of all, Navratilova's fellow lefthander, Rod Laver - a player she'd seen in person at age eight. Said Navratilova, "He could do everything. He was so effortless, so smooth."
Even as a child on clay, Navratilova couldn't help but move forward. "I liked being hitting volleys and not being on the baseline," she said. "I wanted to make things happen, to create."
In 1973, at the age of 16, Navratilova began to play pro events. A tournament in Akron, Ohio in March marked her first match versus Evert, won by the Floridian, 7-6, 6-3. More significant for Navratilova was a victory a month later in St. Petersburg versus a crafty veteran, Helga Masthoff, 1-6, 7-5, 7-5. At her next tournament, the French Open, Navratilova made an impressive Grand Slam debut with a win over an exceptionally gritty, Evert-like baseliner, 1968 Roland Garros champ Nancy Richey. As Richey recalled, "She was unbelievable. She was quick, she was good on her feet, she was strong, had good touch. And being a lefty didn't hurt her either."
Julie Heldman, another veteran who Navratilova played in this early part of her career, echoed Richey. "There was nothing like Martina," said Heldman. "She played pretty, sort of like Laver. Everything worked, there was such obvious talent. Her backhand was weak then but she could slice it and get to the net. Her forehand was darn good. Her serve even at that young age was exceptional."
Journalist Grace Lichtenstein's book, A Long Way, Baby, covered the 1973 women's tennis season in depth. As Lichtenstein recently recalled, "Martina was a revelation to a lot of people who didn't watch women's tennis because they thought it was slow and boring. She was an athlete through and through."
Such was the Navratilova of the '70s. By 1975 - the year she defected from Czechoslovakia at the age of 18 - Navratilova commenced a 20-year-run ranked inside the top four. Amazingly, though, Navratilova admits that even when she first won Wimbledon and concurrently rose to number one in the world, "I just went completely on instinct. I didn't know that my grip on my forehand meant I couldn't hit it down the line, so it would go crosscourt all the time to Chris or Billie's backhand - their stronger side."
"She didn't know what it meant to be number one," said King of those years. "I would tell her how physical she was, that you need to work out properly and get in unbelievable shape."
In 1980, Navratilova lost in the semis of Wimbledon to Evert and in that same stage of the US Open to the streaky Hana Mandlikova. The year-end rankings for that year placed her behind Evert and Austin.
And then she launched a revolution.
AD: Putting the Pieces Together
"Martina's genius," said King, "was that she was always able to find the right people at the right time and place to help her become better." In the spring of '81, Navratilova met Nancy Lieberman. A superb basketball player, Lieberman told Navratilova that she had a great opportunity: the chance to become a supreme tennis champion. The best way to do this was to dramatically improve her fitness, not just by playing practice sets and drilling but by working out off the court in a variety of ways.
"She was bigger, she was stronger," said a top tenners from the '70s, Rosie Casals. "She could play basketball, golf and had exceptional hand-eye coordination."
In tandem with Lieberman, Navratilova rapidly commenced weight training, basketball, movement drills, nutrition; in short, the comprehensive cross-training regimen that by now is standard fare for all athletes. Keep in mind that in 1981 all of this was new. Only a few years earlier, weight training had been considered suspect and tennis players had been discouraged from drinking too much water.
Throughout 1981, Navratilova's strength, fitness and stamina improved dramatically. But the physical gains were secondary. What mattered most was that Navratilova had gained mental fortitude, created an armor that in turn boosted her confidence. "When you're fit, you don't feel the need to bail out of points early," said Navratilova. "You know you can last, and over long matches, long points and day after day of competition that means a lot. Most of all it meant I didn't have to conserve myself. It meant being able to play the point the right way."
In the course of that watershed 1981, Navratilova added another piece: the technical and tactical insights of Renee Richards. "I couldn't hit a topspin backhand," said Navratilova. "My forehand volley technique wasn't as good as it could be." Grips, strokes, footwork, movement were all addressed in painstaking detail. Hour after hour with Richards, Navratilova improved her weaknesses and honed her strengths. Said Austin, "You take all that raw talent and skill and then you had more of that knowledge and you could just see her taking the whole game to a new level."
A major turning point came in the semifinals of the 1981 US Open. Naturally, the opponent was Evert. At this point Evert led the rivalry 28-13. Their previous match had come earlier that spring in the finals of a claycourt tournament at Amelia Island. Evert had won handily 6-0, 6-0. At the US Open, trailing 2-4 in the third, Navratilova made an excellent comeback to reach her first US Open singles final. Said Evert, "The difference between Amelia Island and the US Open was amazing. She'd become fitter, leaner, quicker, hungrier."
Up against Austin in the finals, Navratilova raced through the first set, dropping but a single game. Said Austin, "Two words described my state of mind versus Martina: full alert." At this point it appeared that all the hard work Navratilova had put in with Lieberman and Richards was about to pay off.
Austin won each of the next two sets in tiebreakers. The California struck bold forehands in the decider and adapted well to the excessively windy conditions. Austin also benefitted from Navratilova's technical shortcomings, particularly on the forehand volley. "I still had work to do," said Navratilova. "Everything wasn't all in place yet."
By the end of 1981, the picture looked quite different. In the finals of the Australian Open (played then at the end of the calendar year) versus Evert, Navratilova sprinted to a 5-1 lead in the third. As at the US Open, it was a blustery day. Evert, tenacious as ever, won the next four games. But this time, Navratilova hung tough, breaking Evert at 5-5 and serving out the match.
Thus began a rich period. The Australian Open was one of 15 Grand Slam singles titles Navratilova would win between 1981 and '87. Her record versus Evert during this time: 25-6.
The cornerstone of Navratilova's was her incredible quickness. While she might well have been born with raw speed, even more, there was a way she read the court, was able to dart effectively into the right parts of the court so she could inflict the most possible damage. As longstanding coach Steve Stefanki noted, "She so understood balance and posture. It helped that she'd skated and could ski."
From that base, Navratilova was able to apply persistent and consistent aggression. In longer rallies, aided by Lieberman's fitness push and Richards' technical advice, she'd become far more patient, forceful and versatile. The slice backhand would force opponents to dig out the ball and hit short. The new topspin backhand could create new angles and also blunt netrushers. Navratilova's revamped forehand struck the ball more effectively crosscourt and down-the-line.
But it wasn't just her improved weaknesses that made Navratilova dominant. Having at last mastered her forehand volley - the backhand volley had been naturally superb for years - Navratilova became even more of a forcing presence at the net.
There had been a brief period during the Richards years when Navratilova had proven she could play in all parts of the court, to show that at times she could even beat the mighty Evert from the baseline. But then, beginning around the time of the 1983 Wimbledon, Navratilova found another wise mind to aid her ambition. Former pro Mike Estep told her there was no reason she should try and beat anyone from the baseline. Estep also explained that in coming to net, the idea wasn't so much to hit volley winners as force opponents to attempt difficult passing shots. For as any tennis player knows, it is far more frustrating to miss than to have an opponent strike a winner.
More than any of Navratilova's prior coaches, Estep helped her grasp and execute the concept of cumulative pressure. Said Shriver, "She would just smother you, with the serve, with the return, constantly coming at me. There were times it was difficult for me to win points. That lefty serve would pull you out of the court all the time." According to Evert, "She was probably the most complete player in tennis history." As Navratilova's training approach and improved playing style demonstrated, instinct is hardly genetic. Instinct is better defined as trained knowledge.
Starting with her win at Wimbledon in 1983, Navratilova won six straight Grand Slam singles events - '83 Wimbledon, '83 US Open, '83 Australian, '84 French Open, '84 Wimbledon, '84 US Open. Her quest for a calendar year Slam was ended by Helena Sukova in the semis of the '84 Australian Open.
Navratilova's new approach to training had raised the bar. Others - most notably, Evert - took notice and began to devote time to off-court work. Said Evert, "In the '70s I had to be heads up to fend her off. In the '80s I had to be heads up to be in the match with her."
But by the late '80s, Stefanie Graf had taken over the number one ranking. Though Navratilova had beaten Graf in the '87 Wimbledon and US Open finals, a year later Graf swept all four majors, including a 5-7, 6-2, 6-1 win at the All England Club that snapped Navratilova's six-year stranglehold on the title.
One Last Push
In the spring of '89, at age 32, Navratilova felt burnt out, increasingly tired and disengaged by tennis.
At which point she yet again found new counsel. Fittingly enough, it was one of her original idols, Billie Jean King. One of King's first words of advice: You have a choice. You can stop playing any time you want. King also told Navratilova to remember her past, to summon up the memory of the little girl who'd passionately hit on the backboard for hours on end. And King also told her to think long-term - that another Slam triumph would likely not occur for at least a year. Skipping the '89 French Open, a refreshed Navratilova lost in the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open, both times to Graf in three sets.
By the 1990 Wimbledon, though, Navratilova far more content than she had been in years. In the finals for the ninth straight year, she earned a convincing win over Zina Garrison for a record ninth Wimbledon singles title. Four years later, at the age of 37, she again made it to the final, only this time to lose to Conchita Martinez. That fall she announced her retirement.
In 2000, by now 43 years old, Navratilova returned to the WTA as a doubles player. During that time she won three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, including a career-capping victory at the 2006 US Open with Bob Bryan - a win she earned one month short of turning 50.
The signs of Navratilova's legacy are at once invisible and visible. On the court, Navratilova's versatile playing style is scarcely present. She had become the pinnacle of an attacking, net-based game that was started in the '30s by American Alice Marble and continued with such greats as Althea Gibson, Maria Bueno, Margaret Court and King.
But the groundwork for a contemporary playing style had been laid more by Evert's groundstrokes than Navratilova's volleys. As Navratilova's career continued, netrushers became less and less a part of the WTA, the game giving way to such powerful baseliners as Graf, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Navratilova's fellow Czech lefthander, Petra Kvitova.
Many factors contributed to this, from the rapid ease and effectiveness of the two-handed backhand (Exhibit A: Evert) to enhancements in racquet technology that aided baseliners to a gradual slowing of surfaces. Later, after Navratilova's career ended, new strings such as Luxilon also aided baseliners.
Added to this was the matter of learning curve. A young player can swiftly mimic the baseline play of an Evert and soon enough attain results. But becoming a netrusher - particularly in contemporary tennis - takes patience, a willingness to concede that in the short term the baseliners might hold the edge but that over time, coming forward can pay dividends. This holds true both in the course of a single match and in the longer development of a playing styles.
But then comes a more visible Navratilova-inspired revolution. All the pioneer steps she took off-the-court are now part of any pro's life - from stretching and work with weights to interval training, diet, psychology, equipment and every possible aspect of managing the composition of a player's body. "Certainly she inspired me to do that kind of work," said Evert. In her quest to excel, Navratilova left no stone unturned. Even these days, whether studying contemporary players for Tennis Channel or her own game, Navratilova constantly reassesses everything, from grips to strings to footwork to practice habits, tactical patterns, emotions - the whole gamut. She started as an athlete but endures as a student.
By : Joel Drucker
He has been covering tennis for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in a variety of print and broadcast media, including Tennis Channel, Tennis Magazine, USTA Magazine, CBS and HBO. He is also author of the book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life.