Continuing with our series on the greatest tennis players of all time, here’s No. 4 on our list.
No. 4 – Martina Navratilova
Imagine the time when Andre Agassi was at the tender age of 5; that is when this player turned pro. Now imagine Andre Agassi retiring at the U.S. Open 2006 after a glittering career that is considered to have been one of the longest in history; that is when this player won the last of her 59 Major titles! This player is one of only three players in the history of the game to have completed the boxed set (the feat of winning all 4 majors in singles, doubles and mixed doubles). This player, who has had such a bewilderingly long and successful career, is not an unfamiliar face to anybody who knows how a tennis court looks like. This player is the Czech-turned-American Martina Navratilova; the player whose accomplishments in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, if put together, would not only make the other players in this series feel inferior but also put any other accomplishment in any sport to shame!
A close look at Navratilova’s career will show how odds-defying her journey has been. Ever since the day she turned pro, she had to fight her way through a lot of things on and off the court. She was different from the rest of the crowd in a lot of ways – a southpaw serve-and-volley exponent when stars around her were predominantly right-handed baseliners; a defector from the erstwhile Czechoslovakia, an immigrant to the U.S.A.; a self-confessed bisexual in a tennis world of straight individuals. Despite all these odds and more, she was able to conjure magic by making fans out of an initially indifferent audience, making singles and doubles titles out of tournaments, and setting records that would have previously seemed unimaginable!
One quality of Martina that deserves to be noted and appreciated perhaps more than any other is her determination. With runner-up finishes in her first two Slams as a pro, her career took off like a rocket, but it was a rocket that failed to reach escape velocity. Her initial close finishes were heartbreaking, but she kept fighting. It wasn’t until 1978 that she fulfilled her dream of becoming a Grand Slam champion. The dream moment came, naturally, on the hallowed turf of Wimbledon, which would later go on to become her favourite hunting ground. She won 9 of her 18 Grand Slam singles titles at SW19 and reached a record 9 consecutive finals on the sacred lawns between 1982 and ’90. That was not surprising, given the grace with which she could slice her way through to the net and volley with consummate ease.
Martina’s rivalry with Chris Evert was as epic as it was heart-warming. The two remained close friends despite the incredibly high number of times they had to face off on the tennis court. Initially, the rivalry was lop-sided in Evert’s favour. After 25 meetings, their head-to-head read: 21 Evert, 4 Martina. By the time Evert threw in the towel, though, Navratilova had turned it around to make it read 37 Evert – 43 Martina.
When Navratilova made her move to the U.S.A., her fitness took a beating. From being tagged ‘The Great Hope’, she went on to being tagged ‘The Great Wide Hope’. But she took that as a challenge, and resolutely went about putting together one of the most disciplined training regimens ever seen in the game. She took fitness to new levels, and by winning tons of titles and getting to the No.1 position in the rankings, she almost single-handedly underscored the importance of physicality in tennis. With her determination and dedication, she eventually managed to strike ‘wide’ and ‘hope’ off the tag that was given to her, becoming, simply, ‘The Great’.
When men’s tennis was witnessing a terrific trivalry involving Connors, Borg and McEnroe, Navratilova was quitely making her way to the top of women’s tennis, and in 1982 she entered one of the most dominating periods ever seen in tennis history. Her yearly W/L records read 90-3 (1982), 86-1 (1983) and 78-2 (1984) in a 3-year span; she won 8 of the possible 12 Slam titles during this period! But as every great story has a nice little twist, the Navratilova story too had one. The sidekick villain in this case was her eyesight. It was only in 1985 that she realized she needed a pair of spectacles. Once she added the spectacles to her armory, she managed to soldier on quite successfully, before ‘aging’ – the typical tennis villain - and a German named Steffi Graf entered the tennis scene. Still, Navratilova put on a great fight in the twilight of her singles career even when Graf was at her best. That, again, speaks volumes of Navratilova’s character. The Graf-Navratilova head-to-head reads 9-9 with Martina having a 5-4 edge in Grand Slam matches.
Navratilova’s exploits in mixed doubles continued after her retirement, as she added 4 more Majors to her kitty. The last one was with Bob Bryan, who won his latest Slam just last week! That just goes to show how close Navratilova is to the present day players.
As if the powers that be wanted to test her mettle even post-retirement, Navratilova was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. But she fought off this latest adversary too with her characteristic grit. That same year, she shrugged off her ailment and made an attempt to scale Mt.Kilimanjaro. Why scale a mountain? Probably because, with a record 167 singles titles, a record 177 doubles titles and 15 mixed doubles titles, she had scaled all that anyone could in the tennis world!
And now for the video clip. Steffi Graf and the Williams sisters may have won their share of Wimbledon trophies, but there is only one Queen of Wimbledon. Catch the most special moments of Navratilova’s decade-long domination at the All-England Club here:
These are the other players who have made it to the list so far:
No. 20 – Venus Williams; No. 19 – Justine Henin; No. 18 – Ken Rosewall; No. 17 – Andre Agassi; No. 16 – Pancho Gonzales; No. 15 – Monica Seles; No. 14 – John McEnroe; No. 13 – Ivan Lendl; No. 12 – Jimmy Connors; No. 11 – Margaret Court; No. 10 – Billie Jean King; No. 9 – Rafael Nadal; No. 8 – Serena Williams; No. 7 – Chris Evert; No. 6 – Bjorn Borg; No. 5 – Pete Sampras
Read the detailed write-ups on all the players in this list here: