Talking tennis with Martina Navratilova

She is irrefutably one of the best ever to play the game of tennis, a left-handed dynamo who sweepingly changed the complexion of the sport with her training methodology and supreme athleticism, a ferociously emotional competitor who captured major singles championships in three different decades, a woman who served-and-volleyed as skillfully as anyone ever has. She may well be the finest doubles player tennis has yet seen. She set a modern record for men and women by securing no fewer than 167 singles championships, and in doubles went ten better than that.

Martina Navratilova scaled the heights of her profession with immense dedication, flair and craft. She tied a record by taking six consecutive major titles, sweeping the last three Grand Slam championships of 1983, winning the first three of 1984. That year she won a doubles Grand Slam alongside Pam Shriver, and narrowly missed a sweep of the four majors in singles, losing to Helena Sukova in the semifinals of the Australian Open. That was one of the few milestones Navratilova never hit.

I spoke with Martina by telephone yesterday while she was vacationing in France, and she vividly recollects trying in 1984 to become the third woman to win a calendar year Grand Slam while simultaneously striving for a record seventh consecutive major crown. In her mind, the latter of those two pursuits was more consequential.

“I had this double whammy going at me at the same time,” recalls Navratilova, “because neither one of those things was ever going to happen again. Helena was always giving me fits anyway so it was just one of those things. But the tennis world wasn’t paying much attention [to the Grand Slam bid]. There was not one reporter from the U.S. who came to the Australian Open to see if I could break the record and win seven in a row. To me, I was playing more for that record than the calendar year Grand Slam.”

How much does Martina regret not winning that 1984 Australian Open when so much was on the line? She responds, “It is not that I lost the match to Helena [1-6, 6-3, 7-5], but more that my six in a row didn’t warrant a Grand Slam, only because of the quirky calendar. The Australian Open used to be in January and then they moved it to November when I won it twice. Then they moved it to January again a couple of years later. I know I would have won the calendar year Grand Slam if it had been done the same way it is now, but try to explain that to people. Ahhhh! It is just bad luck. I would have liked to have had that one but overall I am most proud of my body of work, and setting a couple of records that won’t be broken, like winning 74 matches in a row in 1984 and winning 109 doubles matches in a row – [between 1983-85 with Pam Shriver]. Nobody will come close to my total of tournaments won, so I am proud of that.”

Between 1978 and 1990, Navratilova sealed 18 major singles titles, a considerable feat which places her in a tie with Chrissie Evert on the all-time women’s ladder. Only Court [with 24], Steffi Graf [22] and Helen Wills Moody [19] have collected more. Navratilova was a major force everywhere she went at the majors, but her Wimbledon record was what set her apart. She won a record nine singles titles on those hallowed grounds, and the surface, setting and stature of the event were all primary contributing factors.

As she told me, “It wasn’t that I set out to break a record. The goal was always to win Wimbledon. You never think about winning it twice. You just win it that one time and see what happens if you are lucky enough to do that. Once I got into the swing of things in the 80’s, I thought, ‘Okay, maybe I can break the record.’ But you don’t really think about it until you get close. You just keep hoping. Every year at New Year’s, for me it was ‘Here’s to being No. 1 in the world at the end of the year, and here is to Wimbledon!’ That was always the toast and the goal for the year—to finish No. 1 and win Wimbledon. Everything else was kind of a bonus.”

How much of her success was about the grass courts that suited her attacking game to the hilt, and to what extent was making Wimbledon such a high priority the reason she succeeded so frequently on that singularly heralded stage? Navratilova replies, “I just tried to develop a game that was good for any surface, but obviously my game was right for the grass. When I was growing up I just liked coming to the net, whether Wimbledon was played on grass or cobblestones. It worked out great for me at the tournament that was closest to my heart before I even set foot there. Wimbledon was kind of tricky with such a short break after the French Open on clay. Even though grass was great for my game, I didn’t feel comfortable until the second week of Wimbledon when I would be hitting my stride.”

I asked Navratilova if she believed in the notion of sitting in an empty Centre Court before Wimbledon commenced to raise her level of motivation, much the way Billie Jean King had once done. She replied, “I didn’t need to do that to get motivated, but it sure was nice sometimes to be able to go there alone with no crowd and just kind of breathe it in. I remember one year sitting there under a full moon and thinking, “Wow! This is magic. It wasn’t like a pilgrimage that every year I had to do the same routine. But I did like to do it when I could before Wimbledon started. I would sit there and imagine myself playing in the final.”

The conversation turned to this year’s Wimbledon, and the sterling performance turned in by Petra Kvitova in a final round 6-3, 6-0 dissection of Eugenie Bouchard. Did she regard that as a signature display from a player who has gone on record proclaiming that Martina has been her idol?

“She took it to another level,” Navratilova says of Kvitova. “I thought she would win that match and felt she would overpower Bouchard, but nobody could see that kind of annihilation. She exposed every weakness of Bouchard’s, which is hitting on the run or on the stretch. If Bouchard is not moving forward, she is not attacking. It looked like she was facing the Green Bay Packers, just ramming it down your throat. You know what is coming but there is nothing you can do.”

Could Kvitova have played any better? “No. She said she knew she was in the zone and it was nice to see. Petra was just hitting the ball so clean. You could just feel it and hear it. The way she was hitting was so flush. It was really cool to see and I was just thinking, ‘I am glad I am not on the other side of the net. It would be hard to break up that rhythm.’ Some days you can’t. Some days, no matter what anybody did against me, they were not going to beat me, and some days it was like that for Steffi and Monica Seles and Serena. Petra had it that day and it is magic when it happens.”

Does Martina believe she has been essentially an inspirational role model for Kvitova as a central figure in the sport? She responds, “I think it is more inspirational than real. I have spent a total of about two hours in a one on one situation with her. But I guess her father was trying to teach Petra the way that I played and she watched the films of me. It was kind of the way Laver influenced me. I didn’t really meet him until I was playing on the tour. I guess I influenced her that way. It is great, actually, because I really hadn’t had that with other players. I am, of course, more removed from the game than I was ten or 15 years ago, but then, when players would be asked who was their idol, they would say it could be Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Serena or Venus Williams—but not me. From Petra maybe it is because we are both lefties and we are both Czech. It is nice.”

While we were talking about the current game, I was curious to hear how Martina felt about whether or not she would have had to alter her game to compete in today’s world of professional tennis. Would she have needed to serve-and-volley more selectively, switch to a semi-western forehand, or do anything else differently?

“That is such a great question,” she asserts. “I would have to definitely mix it up more on the serve-and-volley. I would serve-and-volley very selectively on the second serve and maybe serve-and-volley 75 percent of the time on my first serve instead of 95%. It would depend on the surface, of course, and how they were playing. But I would have to mix it up more and most of all I would be running around my backhand to hit forehands. I would definitely be putting more topspin on the ball. Even now when I play I use so much more of my hand. My strokes have evolved with the equipment so I would be playing like Roger Federer but coming in more [than him].”

As for the forehand grip question, she replies, “Yes, I have already changed it. I don’t have a set grip because I vary it depending on the height of the ball. But I definitely have been moving it around quite a bit. And just the other day, I realized how much I grip down when I am hitting an overhead. The racket is almost falling out of my hand. So if I was playing now, it would be a semi-western grip and I would emulate Roger’s forehand for sure and look for that shot more. It used to be that when Chris would hit to my backhand and the ball was two inches from the center of the court on that side, I would take it as a backhand. It didn’t occur to me to run around my backhand, even though there were players like Sue Barker and Virginia Ruzici that were doing that. I didn’t feel the need because I could work the ball around with my slice and use the court as a diagonal. I think I would be able to expose the players now and make them hit shots they don’t want to hit, but I would have had to go about playing differently than I used to.”

Navratilova has established herself over the last five years as one of the game’s keenest analysts in television commentary, primarily for Tennis Channel. Her appreciation of the game’s hierarchy in both the men’s and women’s divisions is unmistakable. Addressing the evolution of the sport from when it was a mixture in the old days of baseliners and attacking players to a more prevalent brand of big hitting play with swing volleys interspersed among the top competitors these days, Navratilova is asked if there might be a shift in the tide now to something resembling the old days. She answers, “Yes. Because everybody hits the ball so well now, the next evolution will have to be toward somebody that can do other things. You have seen the slice getting better and better for instance. Some of those slice [backhand] rallies between Federer and Djokovic at Wimbledon were outstanding. Andy Murray has a great slice and the women are starting to employ it more now as well. A hard hitter like Kvitova has so much more variety compared to Kuznetsova and Dementieva ten years ago playing the U.S. Open final. There was like one drop shot and two volleys hit in that whole match. So it is definitely evolving more that way— more variety and players learning to take the pace off the ball.”

Navratilova is entirely comfortable in her own skin during her broadcasts, and at Tennis Channel she blends remarkably well with the likes of Bill Macatee, Ted Robinson, Justin Gimelstob, Lindsay Davenport and others. She speaks her mind freely and naturally, offering sound constructive criticism but lavishing lofty praise on the players whenever it is merited. Moreover, she is every bit as insightful on the men’s matches as she is speaking about the women. What separates Martina from other commentators the way she looks at it?

“I don’t listen to that much tennis,” she responds. “I enjoy listening to Robbie Koenig, who does the World Feed. He is fabulous and my favorite to listen to. So many times he says exactly what I am thinking, and then sometimes he says things I hadn’t thought about which is also great, because I will learn from that. I love doing the men’s matches because with three out of five sets you have more time for the thought process. What goes on in your head is the same whether you are a male or a female. When I am watching somebody play, I try to cover all the bases for the spectators and viewers. Most of all, I feel like I am having a conversation with people. If I was sitting in the stands I would be saying the same stuff to the person sitting next to me. I forget there is a microphone. I just try to tell people things they might not figure out for themselves.”

She also puts herself inside the psyche of a coach when she is broadcasting, which is another one of the keys to why she connects so well with her viewers. “When I am breaking it down,“ she says, “I am looking at it as if I were coaching. What would I be telling the player? How I played is part of who I am as an announcer. I think that is also what makes McEnroe great. We both had to play the baseline game like the baseliners, but we were serve-and-volleyers and perhaps a little more tactical and analytical in our approach as commentators because of the way we played. I think that is why serve-and-volleyers make great commentators—because they see it from a slightly different viewpoint.”

Self-evaluation is a crucial aspect of doing a good job as a broadcaster. Navratilova monitors her work carefully, and tries to find the right balance between talking expansively about what matters to her, and recognizing when it is time to tone it down. As she explains, “You are trying to make it interesting for the people watching. Mary Carillo told me always to make them want to hear more of you, but not too much. So when in doubt I am quiet. Once in a while I say to myself, ‘Oh, I am talking too much and I need to keep quiet’ because I get into this stream of consciousness and I want to get it all out.”

How important are her partners in the booth to the standard of her work? “Usually,” she says, “the people I work with are very respectful with me. They always give me room to talk. Bill Macatee and I have worked so much together and Ted Robinson and I have worked a lot as well. Mary and I go way back, so it is pretty easy. With Lindsay Davenport, I want to poke her with my elbow and tell her to say something because she is so respectful and so nice that at times she doesn’t say anything. Lindsay is great.”

The conversational ground shifts again, and the subject is Serena Williams. Navratilova had spoken frankly yet fairly at Wimbledon about the bizarre behavior of Serena when she bowed out in the Wimbledon doubles with her sister Venus. Serena was clearly disoriented, serving balls in slow motion that did not reach the net, and having disconcerting trouble coordinating the ball bounce before her delivery. Obviously she did not belong on a tennis court competing that afternoon. The official word was that Williams was suffering from a virus.

As Navratilova reflects now, “I said at the time I didn’t think it was a virus that would do that to Serena. It was the WTA that released that statement. I was pilloried for calling Serena a liar, but I didn’t call her a liar. I just said I didn’t think it was a virus, but I know I am not a doctor. I don’t think she should have gone on the court. The people around her should have protected her more because whatever was going on with Serena, whatever sickness, she wasn’t able to judge for herself that she was unfit to play. She didn’t go to hit beforehand. The most peculiar thing to me is that if you are not well, then you go practice to see if you can play the match. She needed to test it out, but she did not. The people around her should have said, ‘‘You are not going on the court.’ Sometimes you can be so ill that you don’t know that you are that ill. You think you are okay but you are not.”

Be that as it may, Navratilova makes it clear she wishes Williams all the best and hopes she is okay. She was not questioning Serena’s integrity. Be that as it may, I wanted to get her feelings about Serena’s sub-par season in singles. The 32-year-old has not been beyond the round of 16 in the season’s first three majors. What is the reason for the sharp decline in form after her magnificent 2012 and 2013 campaigns?

“She gave so much the last two years,” says Navratilova of Williams, “that she just might be tired. Maybe she needs to take a month off. I saw that in Charleston when she lost in the first round right after winning Miami, Serena said she was so tired. And I am like, ‘‘Tired from what?’ But then I realized she was not tired physically—it was an accumulation of the two years before and of giving a bigger effort than ever before. She played so many matches and tournaments day in and day out that I think it just got to her. She didn’t look as fit so far this year as she did the two previous years, but maybe she was working just as hard and the results were just not there. That can happen when you get older.”

Navratilova speaks with wisdom on that topic, drawing on her vast experience. “I remember busting my ass when I got older and I wasn’t injured. Nothing was hurting. But when I ran for the ball I didn’t get there as fast and when I swung hard the ball didn’t travel as fast, even though I was still lifting heavy weights in the gym. Serena could be working just as hard now as she was, or even harder, but the results are not there. That could very well be what is going on. And it sucks. I hated it. It was not that I was in denial. I knew I was getting older, but in tennis there is such a small, intangible difference between winning and losing a match and between making a shot and missing it by an inch wide. So it is really hard to put your finger on it and very frustrating. That could be what is going on with Serena.”

There were, of course, so many reasons why Navratilova’s rivalry with Chrissie Evert was an incomparable series. Not only is it the greatest rivalry tennis has ever known, but it is also right up there as perhaps the most compelling rivalry in any sport. They collided 80 times, with Navratilova winning 43 of those historic clashes. They did battle in 14 major finals, with Navratilova the victor 10 times. Evert was the decidedly better player at the outset, winning 20 of their first 24 duels from 1973-78. Navratilova turned the corner and took the lead in the eighties, toppling Evert 13 consecutive times from the end of 1982 through 1984. In the final four years of the rivalry—from 1985-88—Evert reasserted herself. Although Navratilova still prevailed in twelve of their last nineteen confrontations, Evert got back on the board in that span significantly, overcoming Martina in the 1985 and 1986 French Open finals, stopping the left-hander in the 1988 Australian Open semifinals. Navratilova was the victor in their last clash at Chicago in the fall of 1988.

Beyond the cold statistics, the rivalry soared because of their rich contrast in playing styles. Navratilova still marvels at it all. She muses, “I think we realized after about 60 matches that we had something special. I thought it was going to be ‘‘The Rivalry’ before anybody else. I remember distinctly in 1976 when everyone was talking about Evonne Goolagong and Chris as the rivalry. And I am like, ‘‘What about me?’ I hadn’t beaten Chris that many times yet but I was certainly improving and nipping at her heels. Never mind that we played 80 times, but most of the time we were No. 1 and No. 2 in the world when we met. It was like Federer and Nadal times three. The appreciation grows when you realize you had something like a vintage wine. I don’t know if you will ever get that kind of confluence of perfection again. We realized it, but the appreciation grows when you realize this was one of a kind. And now it has been 26 years since we last played. That is amazing.”

Navratilova is an astute fan and close follower of many sports. Has there been a rivalry in any of them that can compare to her celebrated skirmishes with Evert? “You have rivalries with teams,” she says, “but that is different players and different generations. How many times did Ali and Frazier fight? Three times. Palmer and Nicklaus were rivals but Palmer was at the end of his career when Nicklaus came around. Nicklaus was already finished when Tiger Woods was coming around. Now, who knows what will happen with Tiger? I don’t think it will happen again the way it did with Chris and me. The quality combined with the quantity I don’t think will ever be repeated.”

As we neared the end of the interview, I wanted to get Martina Navratilova to discuss her place in history. When she was at her absolute zenith in a scorching five year stretch from 1982-86, Navratilova was beaten only fourteen times. She won 70 tournaments in that extraordinary span. She is clearly among the elite few to be considered by genuine authorities as perhaps the greatest woman tennis player of all time. I reminded her of a brief conversation we once had in the hallway at the U.S. Open seven years ago, when she told me she disagreed with my assessment that Graf should be regarded as the best ever. Navratilova candidly told me then that she believed she deserved that distinction.

Now, however, she has reexamined the issue and has arrived at a less definitive conclusion. I asked if she felt in her heart that she is the finest female tennis player of all time, and enquired about her criteria.

“It is the body of work,” she replied. “There are different measuring sticks because Margaret Court played half of her tournaments before the Open Era and half after. Chris and I didn’t go to the French and Australian Opens for a number of years because the Grand Slams weren’t such a big deal and then it became a big deal from the mid-eighties onward. Steffi had the most Grand Slams [after Margaret] but then I had bigger numbers elsewhere, as did Chris for that matter. I wanted to be one of the all-time greats and then I thought, ‘‘Okay, I am the all-time great.’ But now I am thinking I am one of the all-time greats and that is good enough for me because there are different measuring sticks. How do you measure it in the end? You would have to feed a whole bunch of data into a computer and let it spit out whatever it could, but there are always the intangibles.”

Navratilova pauses for a brief moment, then continues, “It is just so hard to measure. We are getting into this argument now about Federer and Nadal, and Sampras and Laver. How do you compare those guys? Federer might be the greatest of all time but Nadal beats him regularly. It is so subjective that there is no point in debating it. I am just happy to be in the same group as Steffi, with Chris and Margaret Court and Serena. I am one of them and that is good enough for me. I think I was a bit cocky when I said that about [being the best ever]. I don’t need to say I was the greatest of all time because I don’t think you can really measure that.”

Of all the elite players mentioned by Martina on the consideration list for best ever, Williams has been by far the least consistent. Does she still belong in the conversation? “She is in the conversation,” asserts Navratilova, “but the greatest? I think you need more consistency than Serena has had. I would give the nod to Steffi. Take me out of the picture completely. I would even give the nod to Chris—even if Serena would have more Grand Slams—–because consistency is something that is very important to me. Hats off to Serena for what she did the last two years, but there has to be a strong combination of quality and quantity. And when you have the two together you have consistency. Serena has the quality and the quantity at the Grand Slams, but overall she doesn’t have that. Still, she is certainly in the conversation.”

Before closing this topic down, Navratilova adds, “There is another way to measure this: who was better at their best? But then you have the different equipment. If I was playing now, would I be able to compete with Serena? Absolutely. If she was playing twenty years ago, absolutely she could have competed, but she would have played a different game because of the equipment. It is so hard to compare the eras for those reasons.”

The most impressive thing about Navratilova is how long she stretched her talent across a golden career. She broke into big time tennis in 1973, and took her 59th and last major in mixed doubles alongside Bob Bryan in 2006 at the U.S. Open when she was just over a month shy of her 50th birthday. Does she miss competing in the upper levels of a game she played with such verve for so long?

“I did have a long run and I don’t miss it,” concludes Navratilova. “There was so much that went with it. I loved competing when I could. If I could still win today, would I still play? Maybe, but it takes so much emotional energy. I have been there, done that. I loved being there and being a part of it, but I also love the fact that I have the freedom to live my life the way I want, and I am living it now.”

Originally Published Tennis Channel July 23, 2014

Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.