Martina Navratilova

The legend is taking her last swings, but she's still making a racket.

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Illustration: Rob Kelly

When Martina Navratilova burst onto the American tennis scene from communist Czechoslovakia in the mid-'70s, she was an awkward, chubby, left-handed teenager with a tenuous grasp of the English language. But she soon defected to the United States, jump-starting her swift ascent into one-name-wonder stardom, marked by record-breaking feats of athleticism and a historic coming out.

When Martina Navratilova burst onto the American tennis scene from communist Czechoslovakia in the mid-'70s, she was an awkward, chubby, left-handed teenager with a tenuous grasp of the English language. But she soon defected to the United States, jump-starting her swift ascent into one-name-wonder stardom, marked by record-breaking feats of athleticism and a historic coming out.

Navratilova has won every Grand Slam singles title at least twice (with a record nine wins at Wimbledon) and brought a fierce power to a traditionally gentle women's sport. Though she retired from singles matches in 1994, she returned to the court as a mixed-doubles player in 2000. At just a month shy of 50, she's the oldest pro on the circuit, but she's getting ready to put down her racket again: Navratilova will call it quits after the US Open, which starts this week. She plans to remain busy as an activist, especially for gay issues; she's created the Rainbow Card, a credit card that contributes to various LGBT causes with each purchase. She'll also spend more time with her girlfriend of six years (whom she won't identify). We caught up by phone with Navratilova as she was icing a postsurgery knee.

You defected during your first US Open. How scared were you?

I wasn't scared—I just wanted to play tennis. When you're 18, you're not scared of anything. Now I think I would be petrified, because it meant not being able to see my family for who knows how long, and I didn't know if I would be able to go back.

You've returned to the Czech Republic many times, and recently played your first match there. How did that feel?

It was great. Here I am, the greatest athlete that country produced, and the people never really saw me play live. I represented more than just a tennis player: People name their daughters after me—not because I play tennis, but because I stuck it to the Communists.

What inspired you to write your new fitness book, Shape Yourself?

I was catapulted into it by fans wanting to know how I can still play like this at my age. And I'm doing something that's never been done before; on the tennis scene, we have nobody playing past the age of 40.

Why do you think so few lesbian athletes have come out?

No, no, no, no! Wait a minute! How many gay male athletes are there? None! Zero! I don't know of one that's active, that's out, that's anybody we would know about. Nobody's out except for Amelie [Mauresmo] and me—women, tennis pros! The guys are hiding, big time. A lot of athletes don't really have an excuse. They keep using the endorsements. But how many athletes actually get endorsements? You have to be a superstar.

Some accounts of your coming out say you did it in 1981, and others say you were later outed. Which is it?

It was both. I never hid it from the reporters, but said I couldn't talk about it because I was trying to get my citizenship. As soon as I got it, one reporter called me and said, "Well, you got your citizenship. Can you talk now?" But there was the scandal with Billie Jean [King] at the time, and the women's tour was worried that if I came out it would hurt the tour. Personally, I couldn't have cared less, but I said, "I really can't come out now because it would hurt the tour." So the headline was, navratilova can't come out because it would hurt the tour. [Laughs]

How do you feel about retiring?

It's not retirement, it's just not playing tennis. I'll be very busy with all kinds of things, but most of all I just need to be home more with my partner, my one and only.

Would you get married if you could?

Absolutely. It's about equal protection under the law. It drives me mad when people say it's a threat to heterosexual marriage. So if my partner has a penis, that's all that counts? I could marry a complete stranger and have all the rights I need? It's insane!

What projects will you focus on now, besides the Rainbow Card?

I want to do some TV commentary on tennis, maybe other sports. And who knows? People want me to go into politics, though I'd rather stay an activist. At least that way you can speak the truth and not compromise.

The US Open (usopen.org) begins Monday 28.

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