June 24, 2005

Martina Navratilova – an enduring icon of our times

By H Natarajan

There’s nothing more inspirational and motivating as an exemplary role model. Which is why the Indian cricket board should ask Leander Paes to speak to Martina Navratilova in an attempt to get her to give a pep talk to Indian cricketers on fitness, mental toughness and her ability to take on players 30 years younger in the fiercely competitive world of pro tennis.

Age is merely a number for Martina. In a few months time, she will enter her 50th year – yes, 50th. Considering that she first came on the international scene in the early 70s, she is a dinosaur. She is not just competing, she is dreaming of winning Grand Slams. And she is not just dreaming, but also actually achieving the seemingly impossible.

Her famed partner in the mixed doubles – Leander Paes - is no spring chicken himself. Paes was born in mid-1973, the year Martina began her journey in pro tennis! The two old warriors add up a combined age of 81-plus! Most players in the current women's tennis circuit are less than half of Martina’s age. As she once said in her typically humourous way: “I have been in the twilight of my career longer than most people have had careers!”

Comebacks are never easy, and late comeback are that much more difficult. Ask Mohammad Ali or Mark Spitz. Closer to her vintage and in her sport, Bjorn Borg, aged 35 in 1991, met with little success and settled to play on the Seniors tour instead, with the likes of former rivals Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.

But Martina’s iconic status in the game continues to endure, adding chapters to a true epic. When she became the oldest woman since 1922 to win a singles match at Wimbledon last year, a mediaperson asked her if she had any doubts in her mind that about coming to Wimbledon and being a competitive force, Martina replied: "No. I told you that in Paris. You guys didn't believe me (smiling). Now do you believe me?… The ball doesn't know I'm 47 years old… I love playing tennis. I want to stay out there for as long as I can, and if you can still compete and people enjoy watching you, why not?"

Martina changed the face of women’s tennis. While women traditionally played a soft, baseline game by exuding feminine grace, the muscular Martina rocked women’s tennis with an aggressive serve-and-volley game. She bulldozed opponents off the court, prompting suggestions that she should take on the might of men. She won 74 matches in a row – a record in women’s tennis. The Martina juggernaut swept six successive Grand Slam singles titles in a period of 14 months. She ended four years with a win-loss record of: 86-1, 78-2, 90-3 and 89-3 and was ranked No 1 for 331 weeks.

Giselle Tirado, who has worked with top women’s tennis players, sang hosannas of Martina in an interview with Tennis Magazine two years back. "I had a nice, low-impact regimen planned when I started to work with her, but after a week I had to throw it away…It was way too easy. Martina is a physical freak. She can do anything. Her training runs the gamut of athletic activity - soccer, basketball, ice hockey, boxing, weightlifting, spinning, and lots of on-court drills designed to keep up her speed and agility. But her paramount concern, as it should be for anyone in their 40’s who plays regularly is flexibility. Her exercises will challenge any fit 25-year-old."

Martina converted herself into a vegetarian for a while and says she still intends to go back to being a pure veggie again. The secret of her eating, she explains, lies in moderation. No binges for her. “You wouldn't put junk in your car, it's amazing what people put in their bodies. You get out of it what you put into it, it's that simple,” she says matter of factly. Mind you, Martina was a polar opposite earlier in her career compared to what she is now. The young Czech girl who came to America was lost in the glitz and razzmatazz of the country. She feasted on the burgers, French fries and milkshakes of the fast food majors and as she ballooned, Bud Collins, the prima donna among tennis writers, dubbed her as “The Great Wide Hope.”

The reason why I am convinced that a pep talk from Martina will do wonders for the Indian cricket team is because of the attitudinal change she brought in her mixed doubles partner’s thinking. Two years back, in a post-match press conference at Wimbledon, Paes said: “It was a dream to be out winning Grand Slams, and doing it with one of the true legends of our game is like a dream come true. Apart from trying to win and be the best, her passion for the game and her zest for life is what have turned me around. Last year, I had a very tough year with my partners, and at the end of the year I was really feeling my age. You play with someone like Martina who is out there, she's running, she's got 16 years over me, but she's so bubbly and so fast on the court. She's covering everything, chasing every ball in practice off one bounce, even if it's outside the doubles line. When she did that in Australia, I thought to myself, ‘What am I talking about?’ Martina really helped me find my passion again. We go out there every day trying to be the best that we can be, and I just wish I started playing tennis a lot earlier and got to play with her more years than, you know, five Grand Slams or four Grand Slams so far. So I am enjoying every single bit of it.”

Martina has set an awesome record: she won every Grand Slam singles title at least twice: Wimbledon (a record nine times, including six at a trot), the Australian Open (three), the French Open (two) and the U.S. Open (four), besides 40 doubles titles. The mixed doubles title at the 2003 Australian Open with Paes saw her accomplish the rare feat of winning the singles, doubles and mixed doubles at all four Grand Slam. She missed out on a 59th Grand Slam title when she and Paes were beaten in the 2005 French Open mixed doubles final. Martina has an overall record of 170 singles titles (more than any male of female player), 129 doubles titles and over $21 million in career earnings.

Phew! What a record! What a woman!

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