Navratilova enters Tennis Hall of Fame

Monday, July 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEWPORT -- Martina Navratilova was 25 years old and a two-time Wimbledon champion when she embarked on the path that would lead her to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

"Even though I got started late in my total commitment to tennis, once I figured it out and stayed with it, I gave everything I had to the game. I'm happy because I obviously gave it my best shot," she said.

Navratilova's best shot resulted in a remarkable 22-year career that produced 1,438 victories, 167 singles and 165 doubles championships, 18 Grand Slam singles titles and, yesterday, a spot at the head of the 45th class to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Australian Mal Anderson and U.S. District Judge Robert Kelleher also were inducted before a near-capacity crowd of 3,764 at the Newport Casino.

Anderson, 65, was the first unseeded player to win the U.S. National Championship, beating fellow Aussie Ashley Cooper in 1957. He lost to Cooper in the final at Forest Hills in 1958. He also played on four Australian Davis Cup teams and helped the Aussies win the Cup in 1957 and 1973. Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe joined him in '73 to form one of the strongest teams in Davis Cup history.

Kelleher, 87, was president of the U.S. Tennis Association in 1967 and 1968 and lobbied vigorously for open tennis, which finally occurred in 1968. He was also captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1962 and 1963; the U.S. won in '63 with Dennis Ralston and Chuck McKinley.

Navratilova, 43, recalled the turning point of her career as the summer of 1981. She had returned to the U.S. after reaching the quarterfinals of the French Open, semifinals at Eastbourne and semifinals at Wimbledon. "To me, that was a failure," she said.

Nancy Lieberman, the great basketball player and a close friend, told Navratilova she was wasting her time and not using her talents, that she had better get going because she couldn't play forever.

"I always said I would play until 30 and then we'll see. Thirty wasn't so far away. I'd better get going. So I did. I started working out that summer," Navratilova said.

The results were stunning. As Renee Richards said in her eloquent introduction, Navratilova raised the bar and set goals for future stars to strive for. She set the standard for off-court training that generated phenomenal on-court success.

At the 1981 U.S. Open, Navratilova reached the final and lost to Tracy Austin in three sets. But during a six-year run from 1982 through 1987, she won 14 of the possible 24 Grand Slam singles titles and lost six finals of six.

The only tournaments in which she failed to reach the final during that incredible streak were the 1982 U.S. Open (quarterfinals), the 1983 French (fourth round), the 1984 Australian (semifinals) and the 1986 Australian (did not play). She won Wimbledon six times and was No. 1 five consecutive years until Steffi Graf unseated her in 1987.

Navratilova won a record ninth Wimbledon championship in 1990, also her ninth consecutive Wimbledon final. She was 33. She reached the final again in 1994, her last year on the women's tour.

In doubles, she and Pam Shriver won 79 championships, 20 in Grand Slam events. They won 109 consecutive doubles matches from April 24, 1983, to July 6, 1985.

"It's never too late to get going and achieve your goals, however lofty they might be," she said.

Navratilova was a budding star from Communist Czechoslovakia when she defected to the United States during the 1975 U.S. Open.

"There was really no decision. If I wanted to play tennis, I had to leave the country. It was simple," she said.

Leaving her family behind wasn't so simple.

"What I regret is I had to make that choice. I would never have those years back with my mother, my sister, my grandmother," she said.

Navratilova became a U.S. citizen in 1981, coincidentally in Kelleher's Los Angeles courtroom.

During her acceptance speech, Navratilova thanked the men and women who influenced her career through coaching, training or emotional support.

Navratilova spoke of her rivalry with Chris Evert: her, the serve-and-volleyer, versus Evert, the baseliner. The two tennis icons met 80 times during their careers, Navratilova finishing with a 43-37 advantage.

"What do you want me to say about it?" she said. "It was wonderful to be one-half of the greatest rivalry in sports. Period. We had 80 battles in singles and many more in doubles. We play together in exhibitions. We made each other better."

At a morning press conference, Navratilova also seemed to resent being introduced as Martina the Magnificent, the title of the Hall of Fame museum exhibit in her honor. She wanted to know what Evert, John McEnroe and Rosie Casals were called upon their inductions.

But Navratilova was all smiles when Richards concluded her remarks with a vivid description of a Navratilova serve and volley and then presented "Magnificent Martina, the champion for all time."

Navratilova finished her own remarks by saying she was "completely honored to be inducted . . . to be part of a building that houses not only the history of tennis but its future as well."

Navratilova and Anderson enjoyed a special moment. Waves of applause accompanied them as they strolled the permimeter of the stadium, the same grass arena in which they performed so well in their prime.