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Martina Navratilova: "I Always Question Authority"

It took a while, but one of Wimbledon’s greatest champions holds a special place in the affection of tennis fans everywhere. By Simon Evans

IT IS the afternoon of July 7, 1978 and, on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, the favourite, and world number one, Chris Evert is about to take on 21-year-old Martina Navratilova, a muscular, mousy-haired Czech who, just three years before, had defected to the United States, leaving behind her mother, sister and half-brother. For Martina it is the culmination of a childhood dream, of everything she has worked for, of everything she has sacrificed.

Martina Subertova was born on October 18, 1956 in Prague but, after her parents divorced when she was three and her mother remarried, she took her stepfather’s name of Navatil, adding the female suffix ‘ova’. Her father, a ski instructor, also remarried but took his own life when Martina was eight. Needless to say life was tough in Sixties Prague, especially after a 1968 uprising was brutally suppressed by the Russians, who promptly installed a rigidly authoritarian government.

Young Martina found escape in tennis and from the age of four would spend many hours just hitting a tennis ball against a cement wall, testing her reactions and developing the serve and volley style that would become her trademark.

Tennis was in her blood – Martina’s grandmother had been a high-ranking tennis player in Czechoslovakia, and Martina soon followed in her footsteps by winning the country’s national tennis championship in 1972, at the age of 15.

A year later she made her debut on the US professional tour, even though she was still technically an amateur, and in 1974 was a member of the Federation Cup-winning Czech team.

But the more Martina played in the West, the more she realised her sporting dreams could not be realised if she stayed in Czechoslovakia, where opportunities to play were limited and training facilities primitive. Life became increasingly intolerable for the free-spirited teenager, especially when the Czech tennis authorities openly censured her for mixing with Western tennis players (she was already a close friend of Chris Evert, the pair having roomed together at a tournament in Paris).

So in 1975, despite the pain involved in leaving her family behind, and still aged only 18, Martina applied for political asylum in the United States.

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