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Martina in America

Tasting Freedom, She Didn't Care What Others Thought

(This story was published in 2005).

By: Johnette Howard

[Martina] Navratilova had earned her first chance to compete abroad on the women’s tour just months before Rod Laver tabbed her a rising star. She had captured her first Czech women’s national championship in an upset over [Jan] Kodes’s sister, Denisa Vopickova, who had held the title eight years.

During her first few trips to the United States and a few European events in 1973, Navratilova found herself instantly drawn to Americans—their freedom, their ambition, their spirit. One of the first U.S. tennis players Navratilova met was Vitas Gerulaitis, the long-haired, blond, Brooklyn-born bon vivant. She thought, “Are all Americans like him?”

Navratilova always had a facility for languages, and she quickly set out to improve her English, picking up words and phrases from commercials and cartoons and then trying out the ones she liked in casual conversation: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” “I’m on a seafood diet—when I see food, I eat it. Ha ha ha.”

For Navratilova, the change of pace from Czechoslovakia, the intoxicating bursts of liberty, during her travels were dizzying.

She and Betsy Nagelsen, a sometime opponent and doubles partner, hit it off immediately. Navratilova stayed with Nagelsen and her parents on a 1974 tournament swing through Florida and was happy to find that Nagelsen’s exuberance for sports matched hers. When the two of them weren’t playing tennis, they were cannonballing into the pool or playing catch with a football and trying to see who could hit the streetlamps with a toss. “Martina was very popular with everyone as a kid, and so much fun, like, ‘Life, gosh! There’s just so much to do!’ ” Nagelsen says.

Nagelsen remembers Chris Evert as a polar opposite. “When Chris and her mom came to stay with us during tournaments, Chris was perfectly happy to get her magazines and curl up on the side of the couch,” Nagelsen says with a laugh. “I’d say, ‘Chris, let’s go play football!’ It would be, ‘No, thanks. I’m happy right here.’ ”

Navratilova’s wide-eyed enthusiasm was endearing. Virginia Slims tour director Peachy Kellmeyer once traveled with Navratilova to Florida immediately after Navratilova had won a fur coat at a Chicago indoor tournament. “It looked like dog fur—God, it was ugly,” Kellmeyer says. “It was the ugliest. But Martina was so darn proud of that coat she insisted on wearing it our whole flight to Florida and during the cab ride to my mom’s home.”

When Navratilova won her first car at another Florida tournament, Virginia Slims publicity director Jeanie Brinkman happened to look out her hotel room window and see an overjoyed Navratilova driving around the empty parking lot in circles. Laughing now, Brinkman says, “We finally had to say, ‘Martina, it’s time to come in now. That’s enough.’ ”

Despite their differences, Navratilova and Evert quickly developed a budding friendship. Evert, still a very correct Catholic schoolgirl, instantly liked Navratilova when they exchanged hellos at Navratilova’s first American tournament. They spoke a few weeks later at another event in St. Petersburg, Florida. Though Navratilova’s memory of that second encounter was one of surprise—she couldn’t believe Evert noticed her and said hello—Evert, laughing, says she couldn’t have missed Navratilova.

That Girl's Got Guts

“There might have been a thousand people milling around that day,” Evert says, “and there’s Martina walking around in the crowd in this one-piece bathing suit with these crazy tan lines going here and here and there, still twenty-five pounds overweight, eating a Popsicle. She was just oblivious, not even caring. Just as fresh and raw and naive and vulnerable as ever. And I was horrified for her. I thought, ‘Oh my God! I wouldn’t ever get in a bathing suit in front of even five people by a pool!’ But she was just not self-conscious at all. That was my first impression. I thought, ‘Wow. That girl’s got guts.’ And I just chuckled. It was cute. I mean, it was just a really cute impression that I had of her at that time.”

Other Czech players who were allowed out of the country were far more inhibited than Navratilova. They were far more hesitant to defy orders or cut loose, or test the limits of what was permissible. “I did not dare,” Kodes says. Hana Mandlikova, who is six years younger than Navratilova, was shocked and deeply suspicious when she ventured out on tour. Americans or Westerners often asked her questions that would’ve been considered intemperate or even dangerous to answer back home.

“People from other countries didn’t know any better, and it’s so hard to explain, even now,” says Mandlikova. “At the start, I hated America. It was so different. People were so open, so brash, which is great, but I wasn’t used to it. When I got used to it, I felt wonderful. You were free. You could be friendly. You didn’t have to hide everything. But where I grew up, people talked with only their closest friends about politics or what you didn’t like. No one knew who was spying on whom.”

After the Soviet crackdown in 1968, everyday life for Czechs became even more constricted. Many who signed petitions supporting “The 2,000 Words” were punished. Doctors were forced into jobs digging ditches. Intellectuals were jailed. Vaclav Havel survived by working for a time at a brewery. More than 100,000 people, many of them Czechoslovakia’s best and brightest, defected in the first twelve months alone, a brain drain that was felt for decades. Czech tennis players who traveled outside the country were accompanied to Grand Slam tournaments by supervisors, who were ordered to watch and write reports: With whom did players socialize? Where did they go? What was discussed?

Jan Kodes says that the players often traveled alone to minor tournaments but had to sign statements before leaving, promising to report anything “extraordinary.” Athletes’ passports were confiscated after each trip abroad and kept at a central office, then reissued just before they left for their next event. Travel permits had to be requested for each trip.

Every Czech athletic contest against the Soviet Union became freighted with even more political meaning. Every soccer victory was hailed; every Olympic triumph became legend. When Soviet tennis players came to Prague in 1971 to play Davis Cup, police and plainclothes security patrolled the grandstands to discourage trouble. Kodes says that he had a splitting tension headache throughout the two-day competition. He barely slept. Much of his first pressure-packed match against the Soviet number one, Alex Metreveli, was played in a steady rain and medieval gloom. When Kodes stroked a good shot the crowd at the I Czechoslovak Lawn Tennis Klub burst into ear-splitting cheers. When he lost a point, the Czech fans shrieked and slapped their foreheads.

“With Russia, it is a deep thing,” Kodes says.

Kodes won two of his three matches to lead Czechoslovakia to victory that weekend. When he arrived at Wimbledon a few weeks later he wasn’t surprised to learn that the two Russians he defeated had been kept home. Kodes knew how the system worked. He was also older, married, and more willing to navigate the shoals than Navratilova, who was ten years his junior. Kodes was traveling on the men’s tour full-time when Navratilova started playing the women’s tour, and it wasn’t long before stories of her impetuous behavior floated back to him.

“If we go back to politics,” Kodes explains, “there were two wings at the time: one represented the government and the other the Communist Party. The government wing wanted success and progress. The Party wing was ideological: ‘Chop off heads. Prohibitions. Set examples for the youth. Foreign cars and rock ’n’ roll are bad.’ These were two extremes, and these two wings were fighting hard. That means that they caused each other trouble out of spite.

“Back then, they were fighting over Navratilova,” Kodes says.

Drawn to the West

Navratilova broke the Socialist rules of travel almost from the start. She refused to limit her fraternizing to other Czechs or Eastern European players. Antonin Bolardt, a high-ranking sports official and Czech Davis Cup captain, griped, “Martina is avoiding the collective—she is friends with the girls from the West, those Americans.” In 1974, Navratilova accepted an invitation to train for a few weeks with Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals in California. Betsy Nagelsen says, “It was funny to watch the transformation in Martina. She went from the girl I met who said, ‘Let’s go swimming!’ to this girl wearing Gucci clothes and gold bracelets and driving fancy cars.” Soon Czech officials began to mutter that Navratilova was too “Americanized,” that she had her nose in the air.

At the 1974 U.S. Open, tour player Shari Barman introduced Navratilova to her father, Fred Barman, a genial man who had started as a mailroom clerk at Twentieth-Century Fox in Hollywood and worked his way up to become a show business manager. Barman had a lifelong penchant for Bentley cars and a stable of clients that included actors Peter Graves and David Janssen. His daughter Shari, in addition to playing the women’s tour, sometimes worked as the assistant pro at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where she was Katharine Hepburn’s hitting partner. Shari landed the honor partly because Hepburn liked her wit and partly because Shari conscientiously followed Hepburn’s orders, warbled in that distinctive Connecticut Yankee voice, to keep the ball near her, for God’s sake.

“She liked the exercise but didn’t like to run,” Shari says.

Before long, Martina had become fast friends with the Barmans. Fred Barman helped her negotiate a better financial deal with Czech officials when she turned eighteen. For the first time, Navratilova would keep 80 percent of her winnings and pay the rest to the Czech government as tax. She no longer had to live off the meager seventeen-dollar-a-day per diem she was being paid above hotel expenses, or make trips home carrying thousands of dollars in cash because the Czech officials insisted on receiving her prize money in American hard currency. (Hana Mandlikova, who began playing abroad at fifteen, was so anxious about losing her winnings, she kept the cash in a bag beneath her head while she slept on planes. On trips in and out of the country, she often hid American dollars in her shoes and belt to get past sticky-fingered Czech border guards.)

Navratilova, done with being a cash mule and flush with money for the first time, started to buy things like jewelry. Lots of it. In Los Angeles, some players took her shopping on Rodeo Drive and disco dancing at The Candy Store.

Even in 1975, Czech players didn’t control their own schedules. But Navratilova bucked that rule too. In February, she chose to stay in the United States for an extra week to play a tournament in Amelia Island, Florida. She didn’t seek official permission. Within days, she received a tearful phone call from her alarmed parents, saying she might be in trouble. Next came a terse telegram from the Czech tennis federation, ordering Navratilova to return immediately. Now Navratilova was scared and crying.

A tournament official intervened on Navratilova’s behalf. Navratilova, thinking things were smoothed over, kept playing. She advanced to the final, where she lost to Evert, still a common occurrence. Navratilova flew home hoping her success would earn her a reprieve. But she was called in by federation officials and forced to defend herself.

Threats, not just reprimands, were hurled at her now.

“[Her] staying that extra week was an excuse for them to say her acts were egregious and so on,” says Kodes. “The whole problem was that the state wanted to demonstrate its power over the people. Everything was directed by some kind of violence. Small-time officials who wanted to appear important told her, ‘We will give you a lesson.’ Other officials wanted to show how good they were and possibly write a detailed report on her. Antonin Bolardt started it all because he became the boss of national-level sports. He was building a Communist career. He wanted to please the higher-ups.”

Navratilova said all the right things at the disciplinary meeting. Vera Sukova, the Czech women’s national team captain and coach who was feeling enormous pressure from her superiors because of Navratilova’s behavior, urged her afterward to behave, to play the game.

Navratilova’s parents were more distraught. They warned her, “You can’t do whatever you want.”

“Why not?” Martina said.

Had Navratilova listened to those around her, the escalating tensions might have abated. Her life might have been totally different. “You would have probably never heard of me,” she once said. She was accumulating successes at a faster pace now. In 1975 she and Renata Tomanova led Czechoslovakia to its first-ever Federation Cup title, with Sukova as their coach. Navratilova was routinely advancing farther into tournaments too—finally notching her first win over Evert in 1975 in a tense 3–6, 6–4, 7–6 quarterfinal match in Washington, D.C. Navratilova was so nervous on match point, she knocked a volley off her racket frame and sagged with relief when it fluttered over the net for a winner.

Told Navratilova was so excited she didn’t sleep at all that night, Shari Barman says, “Chris probably didn’t either.”

Four weeks later, Navratilova went on a giant-killing run and beat Margaret Court, Virginia Wade, and Australian star Evonne Goolagong in succession at the U.S. Indoor Championships in Boston. Bud Collins, in an impish nod to Navratilova’s extra weight, gave her a nickname that stuck: “The Great Wide Hope.”

Dating Hollywood Celebs

Evert, by now the world’s number one player, asked Navratilova to be her doubles partner. Navratilova was flattered and said yes. They were young, traveling the world, and trying to figure out who they were. “We used to discuss everything together then,” Evert said. “I used to tell her all about my problems with boyfriends, and we really got to know and care about each other.” At a tournament in Philadelphia, Evert and Navratilova shared a pepperoni pizza the night before playing their semifinal against each other. Navratilova narrowly lost, 7–6, 6–4, then practiced with Evert the next morning to help her prepare for the final. “I used to turn to Chris a lot for help and advice in those early years in America, and she was always so understanding,” Navratilova said.

In early May, the men’s and women’s tours both happened to be in Rome on consecutive weeks for the Italian Open. Navratilova and Evert were among a few players who decided to practice together at the Cavalieri Hilton, where they were staying. One day, journeyman pro Dino Martin, the son of the entertainer Dean Martin and a sometime pop singer himself, sidled up to Evert and said, “You know who I really like?”

“Who?” Evert said, her heart fluttering. She had always thought Martin was cute.

“I really like that Martina.”

“I looked at him and blurted, ‘Really?’ ” Evert recalls, laughing at the memory. “What I was really thinking was ‘Don’t you . . . um . . . like me?’ I remember just then, Martina was going by eating a big apple, and there’s Dino, who was real strong, looking at her and telling me, ‘Yeah, I’m really turned on by those muscles of hers, you know. I’m really turned on by her.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, okay, okay . . .’

“At that time, Martina still always had this story about having a boyfriend back home in Czechoslovakia. So I said, ‘God, Martina, Dino’s really cute and he likes you and he wants to go out with you!’ ” Knowing that actor Desi Arnaz Jr. was Martin’s best friend, Evert had what she thought was a brainstorm. She told Navratilova, “Wouldn’t it be fun if the four of us went out on a double date?”

The next time Evert and Navratilova were playing in Los Angeles, Martin and Arnaz picked them up in Martin’s sports car after Evert had just appeared on The Dinah Shore Show. And off the four of them went—to a drive-in movie.

Despite Evert’s efforts to play matchmaker and Martin’s choice of venue, sparks did not fly. Navratilova and Martin may have been the only dates at the drive-in who actually watched the movie. Navratilova says, “I was still trying to figure out my sexuality then.”

Navratilova and Evert’s next stop after Rome was the French Open in Paris, the first Grand Slam of the year. Navratilova, just a few months removed from her last chiding from Czech officials, was allowed to compete. But once again she didn’t stay with the Czech players, who were put in a hotel forty-five minutes from the tournament. Navratilova was seeded second in the singles draw behind Evert. They were playing doubles together, and Navratilova decided to stay at the same luxury hotel that Evert and many of the other seeded players chose. Evert, who had only a slight awareness of Navratilova’s troubles with Czech officials, thought nothing of Navratilova’s decision. Navratilova knew the hotel was outlandishly expensive, but she didn’t give it a second thought.

“I thought I deserved it,” Navratilova said.

When Evert and Navratilova tore to the 1975 French Open finals in both singles and doubles, it was a happy surprise to both of them—especially when they beat Olga Morozova and Julie Anthony for the doubles title, giving Navratilova her first Grand Slam crown of any kind. (It was Evert’s fourth.) In the singles final, Navratilova seized the first set from Evert, then faded just as dramatically to a 2–6, 6–2, 6–1 loss. It was the first, but in many ways the most unremarkable, of the fourteen major finals they would play.

Navratilova flew home and was shocked to learn that she was in trouble again—this time because of her lavish hotel arrangements. More threats were made. Czech officials suggested that Navratilova wouldn’t be allowed to go to Wimbledon with her parents and sister as planned. Again, permission finally came. But Navratilova was sullen.

“I can’t live like this,” she said.

Excerpt taken from "The Rivals" by Johnette Howard Copyright © 2005 by Johnette Howard. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.