Martina Navratilova’s voice was rising, inching higher and more animated with each word, each thought. She apologized for sounding so emotional, but she couldn’t help herself.
“What’s happening at those detention centers in Texas is unconscionable, just beyond belief,” said Navratilova, the top-ranked woman in tennis for much of the 1970s and ’80s. “All these people who are lying through their teeth, saying, ‘The kids are O.K. — it’s like summer camp.’ I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’
“We complain about Boko Haram taking the girls in Nigeria, and here we are doing it to these women and men. And the kids are marked for life. Some will never be reunited. Some parents will never know what happened to their kid.”
Navratilova’s concern about families being separated is borne of personal experience. After fleeing Communist Czechoslovakia at 18 to seek political asylum in the United States during the 1975 United States Open, Navratilova went nearly four years without seeing a member of her own family. She has said it was the most painful time in her life.
During that period, on July 7, 1978, Navratilova won the first of her record nine Wimbledon singles titles, kick-starting a career that would eventually include 18 Grand Slam singles championships.
“I was so happy, but it was bittersweet because my parents weren’t there and I didn’t even know if they were going to be able to see the match,” said Navratilova, who is tied with Billie Jean King with a record 20 Wimbledon titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. “That’s when you put the blinders on and just keep going. It was all very emotional, but you don’t dwell on it because, if you do, you can’t play.”
“I found out after the match that they drove to Pilsen, on the German border, and watched on TV,” she added. “And somehow, my dad called me in the locker room which was so difficult back then. I never asked him, ‘Wait, how did you get the number?’”
Navratilova played her first Wimbledon as a 16-year-old in 1973 and won the women’s doubles event in 1976 with her good friend Chris Evert. Two years later, Navratilova reached her first final there — against Evert.
Navratilova had beaten Evert in the final of a warm-up event in Eastbourne, England, 9-7 in the third set, claiming only her fourth victory in their 24 career meetings up to that point. Her fifth would come in the form of a 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 win at the All-England Club.
Forty years later, Navratilova, now 61, recalls the details, big and small.
“I served it out at love, but I just remember my heartbeat,” said Navratilova, who played, and won, her last Wimbledon match, the mixed doubles final with Leander Paes, at age 46 in 2003. “I’ve never heard my heart beat like that before. It was so loud, but I wasn’t out of breath. It was like an out-of-body experience. I felt like the whole stadium could hear my heart beating.”
After Evert, the top seed, won the first set comfortably, the second-seeded Navratilova was serving at 3-2, 15-30, in the second when, after a drop-shot exchange, both players found themselves at the net. Evert hit an uncharacteristic high forehand volley that smacked Navratilova squarely on the head, prompting her to fall back in feigned pain.
The players laughed, and Evert patted her opponent on the forehead. Navratilova proceeded to save two break points and hold serve for 4-2, which, Evert said, swung momentum in her favor.
“Martina was just supreme on the grass,” said Evert, who was 23 and a two-time Wimbledon champion at the time. “I was always the underdog, running uphill to beat her on a surface that her game was perfectly suited to. Especially being a lefty and a serve-and-volleyer, it was a battle every time.”
Evert was surprised to hear that of her nine meetings with Navratilova at Wimbledon — five of them finals — seven went to three sets.
“Maybe one of the problems was that, when I went into matches with her, I was kind of negative because I felt like she was always the favorite,” Evert said.
But she has another explanation for the loss to Navratilova in ’78, especially after she let a 4-2 lead in the third set slip away and lost 12 of the match’s last 13 points.
“I have to laugh, but that was the Wimbledon I fell in love with John Lloyd,” Evert said of her first husband, a British player whom she married in 1979 and divorced in 1987. “I was love struck, we were dating and we went out every night. I was really distracted and I wasn’t fully engaged or focused on winning Wimbledon. Sorry, Martina.”
Navratilova won Wimbledon again the following year. Coaxed by a plea from the Duchess of Kent, the Czechoslovakian government issued a travel visa to Navratilova’s mother, Jana, who arrived on the eve of the tournament to watch her daughter play. It would be several more years before the whole family, including a sister, Jana, would be reunited.
Navratilova remains involved in tennis as a commentator, and will work for Tennis Channel and the BBC at Wimbledon. She spoke out earlier this year when a British documentary on gender equity revealed that John McEnroe, also a commentator at BBC, earned 10 times more she did during last year’s tournament. The BBC said their workloads were not equitable, but has agreed to close the gap this year.
“They made things right, I’m happy and I hope it will be better for a lot of other women as well,” said Navratilova, who declined to discuss how much more she will be paid this year above the 15,000 pounds she earned last year. “This was never personally about me against John. He’s such a proponent of women, and I think he got blindsided.”
Navratilova has been outspoken, especially on Twitter, on many issues, criticizing President Donald Trump, the Republican Party, anti-gay sentiments and cruelty to both animals and people.
Several years ago, Navratilova, an American citizen, considered a political run herself. But a return to tennis, a 2014 marriage to the former Russian model and businesswoman Julia Lemigova and helping to raise her two daughters interceded. Navratilova also came to think that she might be too outspoken to be taken seriously. Still, there is one cause that she is immensely proud of — maybe even more than her nine Wimbledon singles titles.
“Just being out, being myself and being proud and unapologetic about who I am,” said Navratilova, who revealed her homosexuality in 1981. “I’m proud of setting an example and being a beacon of hope for so many back when it was such a horrible thing to be gay.”