The 2002 US Open was surreal. Just days before Pete Sampras won what would be his last Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows—he retired a year later—Martina Navratilova had other plans.
She barged into the men’s locker room, walked up to Leander Paes and told him, “You’re playing mixed doubles with me this year.” It was ironical that as Sampras was getting ready to hang up his racket, the then 45-year-old Navratilova was ready for her second innings.
“It was something so instinctive and so natural that I instantly said yes,” Paes recalls, over the phone from London.
Instinctive but calculating on court, an aggressive competitor but a sensitive human being, an epitome of fitness, Navratilova has defied convention every step of the way.
At 55, she is today the fitness ambassador of the American Association of Retired Persons (Aarp), a non-profit organization that helps people over 50 take better care of themselves. Her schedule may be less hectic, but ask her how she stays busy and she is surprised. “You want me to describe my average day? I don’t have an average day,” she says over the phone from Los Angeles, US.
Two to tango: Paes and Navratilova with the 2003 Australian Open trophy. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
A chunk of her time goes into commentary—she speaks from all the four Grand Slams for the Tennis Channel. Navratilova is also invited to give speeches on issues relating to health and fitness, tennis, leadership, women, gay and lesbian issues. Auto maker Maruti Suzuki India Ltd invited Navratilova to its annual dealers’ conference in Bangkok, Thailand, in May.
In February 2010, she was diagnosed with non-invasive breast cancer, known as ductal carcinoma. Radiation therapy followed, part of which was at the same time she did commentary at the French Open and played senior doubles with former Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna. Six weeks of radiation got rid of Navratilova’s cancer, though she says it sucked her energy at the time.
Serena the best
Unlike her time, when women’s tennis was dominated by just two or three players—Navratilova was part of two great rivalries, with Chris Evert and later Steffi Graf—there isn’t a clear dominant player now. “Women’s tennis is pretty fragmented,” says Navratilova. “We all know that Serena Williams is the best player when she is playing or when she is playing at her best, but she hasn’t been playing much. She seems to get injured a lot,” she says.
Also, in the past top-ranked players were always Grand Slam champions unlike now, when Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki was at the top (in 2011) despite not having won a single Slam. “Nobody thought she was really the tour’s No. 1 because she didn’t have a winning record against the top 10 players. So it’s been kind of a moving thing at the top. But I still feel that Serena is the No. 1 player if she plays full time.”
End of an era?
In 1994, aged 37, Navratilova entered the Wimbledon singles final for her 10th title. She lost to Spain’s Conchita Martinez—who ironically won only that Grand Slam title in her career—plucked a few blades of Centre Court grass (she had won 19 overall titles here) and quietly walked out into retirement from singles at the end of the year. She played doubles for another year. Five years later, she was back for more.
During her early playing days. Stuart Nicol/Getty Images
A few months after Paes and she lost in the 2002 US Open, they won the 2003 Australian Open. At 46, she also became the oldest champion in history.
“I love playing. I still thought that I’d have a good time doing it, so I kept playing. I wanted to see how well I could play at my advanced age; I was in my 40s when I decided to come back,” she says.
Navratilova finally retired in 2006, just a month short of her 50th birthday. She had won 59 Grand Slam titles (singles, doubles and mixed doubles) during a career that spanned over 30 years.
Paes remembers getting calls from her when he was in hospital in Florida in 2003 for a parasitic brain infection. He recovered but the doubles pair missed the US Open. “Martina was adamant that she was not going to play with anyone till I recovered. I begged her to move on but she said, ‘I am waiting for you to recover and until you recover, I am not going to play’,” says Paes.
Earlier this year, she participated in the American reality television show Dancing With the Stars—a contest in which a celebrity pairs with a professional dancer—but lost in the first round.
These days, she also spends a lot of time behind the mike, voicing her opinion on tennis matches. Is it tough? “No,” she says. “It’s much easier than when I was playing. I like the way I can still be involved with tennis. The research team does all the research. Plus, I have a lot of history, obviously, in my head.”
At the Grand Slams, she also plays the seniors’ matches—she and Novotna lost in the final of the French Open to Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis.
With comeback never really out of the question when you talk of Navratilova, has she really moved on this time? “I did move on even when I was playing (in my second innings). I could’ve done something else, but I enjoyed it (tennis). Moving on sounds like you did it only because you had to; but I had interests outside tennis too so I did not really need to play. I played because I loved it, for as long as I could, and I love what I am doing now,” she adds.