Martina Navratilova jokes that she lives to break records. The Prague-born American champion played her first match at Wimbledon in 1973 and dominated women's singles tennis for the next two decades, winning nine championships at the famous British venue and accumulating 167 singles' titles to her name--a score no other player in the world can match. Now 47, she officially retired from women's singles a decade ago. But she never really stopped playing, and last year her win in Wimbledon's mixed doubles tied her with Billie Jean King for the most Wimbledon titles. This year she may beat that amazing record.
Navratilova received a wild card--a spot awarded either to promising local talent or prominent players ranked too low to qualify for regular entry--for this year's women's single's match. She went on to become the oldest woman to win a singles match on the grassy courts of southwest London by easily defeating her first-round opponent, only to be knocked out by Gisela Dulko, a 19-year-old from Argentina. Navratilova, an outspoken lesbian, says this will be her Wimbledon swansong and that she plans to open a tennis academy next year in Florida. But first she has some more tennis to play: she has advanced to the quarter finals in both the mixed and women's doubles. The tennis legend spoke with NEWSWEEK's Ginanne Brownell on the rooftop of the players' lounge about older athletes, the sexing up of the game and the changes she has seen since she began playing there. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Is this really the end for you?
Martina Navratilova: I have had a good time. But there are other things I want to do now.
There was huge debate last week when you were awarded the wild card to play. Some say you robbed others of the chance; some say by winning your first round so easily you exposed women's tennis to have a lack of depth and strength.
I do not know who is saying it, because I would like to talk to them -it's total sexist bulls--t. Forget how old I am, look at how I am hitting the ball. They are not questioning Michael Jordan or Mario LeMieux when they come back and dominate in their sports. Barry Bonds is breaking all kinds of records and they are not saying that is bad for baseball. Why is my excellence bad for the game of tennis? That statement has no merit.
Is there still a lot of sexism in sports?
Absolutely. If a woman athlete does something controversial, she is shunned. If a man does, they become like heroes. People are chanting Kobe Bryant's name. But imagine if a woman was in a criminal proceeding and she gets a hero's welcome-I do not think so, they would boot her out of the league.
Players like Anna Kournikova, the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova are wearing skimpy outfits and looking gorgeous out on the court. Is the sexing up of tennis a bad thing or does it help bring in a new fan base?
The fact that they are attractive and want to flaunt it, that is OK. The guys are sexing it up as well. Besides it has always been there, the sexification of sport--they used to make a big deal that Chris Evert wore nail polish. You do attract attention with your looks, but first you have to back it up with your play.
Why is it that there are so few international female sports figures?
There are many more opportunities for men in athletics [because of team sports] to make money and make a name for themselves. Fifty years ago there were almost no women, so we have come a long way. Keep in mind there are countries where women cannot play sports, cannot even leave their house without their husbands, so we still have a long way to go.
There have been hints in the press that you are possibly interested in a political career. Are you hoping to follow Arnold Schwarzenegger's route to becoming another central European-born governor in the United States?
[Laughs] That will be a long way away. I have no idea. I have many interests after my life in tennis.
If you were to hold a public office, what would appeal to you?
What would appeal to me would be making a difference, it's not whatever the name of it is, it's what makes a difference in peoples' lives.
You have been very outspoken about the Bush administration. In fact, Connie Chung famously told you to "Go back to Czechoslovakia." What does that say about the American psyche these days?
This came from an article I did in the spring of 2001, where I said [that] so far the policies the Bush administration had made were based on money and not on what was right and wrong. Out of that came this attack on me that I was unpatriotic--and that was before 9/11! If this had happened after 9/11 they would have sent me back to Czechoslovakia, which would be hard [because] it has not existed for 12 years! It was mind boggling to me because that is what America is for--to speak your mind. Is that not what we have gone to Iraq for, to give them those freedoms?
Even though the issue of gay marriage has brought with it a firestorm of controversy, are you pleased that at least it is on the table for discussion?
What is the argument against gay marriage? Who does it hurt? If you are against gay marriage, do not have one. But let me do it if I want to. How can Britney Spears in five minutes have more rights with the guy she just chooses to get married to on a whim, compared to a couple that has been in a monogamous, loving relationship together for 15 years and have no rights. That is not fair.
Former Wimbledon champ Goran Ivanisevic retired this year with a match on the famous Centre Court. If you advance to the finals, you too will say goodbye to this sport on the court where you have had so many memories. How will it feel?
It is the end, but it's been such a bonus that I even am here. When I played last year and I won the mixed, I did not think I would be playing again. I am sure people will miss me, but at least we just had a few extra times together. How great is that. It's been like playing on borrowed time.
Is it still exciting to walk through the crowd and to hear them shouting your name?
That is the magic of it all. Because I play the game well and people like my spirit, it transcends all the barriers. It does not matter [about] my sexuality, where I am from, that I am left-handed, that I am a woman. They appreciate the being that I am when I am playing tennis. That is what it's about.
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