Navratilova Enters Hall of Fame

Sunday, July 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) — Standing in the Newport Casino where hundreds gathered to watch her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Martina Navratilova spoke of another court.

It was in her Czech homeland, where her family paid club dues by pulling up weeds and putting down clay. It was where, as a young girl, she and her father would hit balls for hours, arriving home to a mother upset that dinner had gone cold.

On Saturday, Navratilova, fresh from a visit to Prague and that humble court, recounted the sacrifices she, her relatives and friends made on her journey to reshaping women's tennis and perhaps all of women's sports.

``The one thing I can hold my head up high is that even though I got started late in my total commitment to tennis, once I figured it out, I stuck with it, just gave everything I had to the game in becoming the best player I could be and hopefully making others wanting to be that way as well,'' she said.

Navratilova, 43, gave up years with her family to compete. In 1975, she defected from her country, announcing the move during a news conference in New York at the U.S. Open men's final.

``What I regret the most is that I had to make that choice ... losing those years with my mother, with my sister, with my grandmother,'' she said.

Her mother, Jana, who attended the ceremony, remains angry about the time she was forced to have no contact with her daughter.

``I hate communism,'' she said. ``It was almost four years. It's still hard to talk about.''

Navratilova went on from there to win twice at Wimbledon. But at age 25, Navratilova was in a slump. Her friend, basketball player Nancy Lieberman, convinced her she was not playing to her potential.

``I was really wasting my talents,'' she said.

The revelation propelled her into the gym, to become one of the first women to train and lift weights. She gained strength, quickness and speed, while focusing on better nutrition. To keep up with her, other players had to become more athletic.

In a career that stretched from 1973 until 1994, Navratilova won 167 singles titles and 165 doubles crowns, both records. Her singles titles include a record nine Wimbledons, four U.S. Opens, three Australian Opens and two French Opens.

In 1983, she posted a remarkable 86-1 record, her only loss coming in the French Open. The next year, she lost just twice.

She also had winning streaks of 74, 58 and 54 matches. After losing to Hana Mandlikova on Jan. 15, 1984, to snap her 54-match string, she won the next 74, giving her a 128-1 record between the French Open in 1983 and the Australian Open in December 1984.

Her competitors included the top women players. Asked her favorite, she replied, ``Anyone I beat.'' But her rivalry with Chris Evert was her best known. She broke Evert's career record of 1,309 singles wins and finished with 1,438.

``We made each other better,'' Navratilova said.

Navratilova made no secret of being a lesbian, which cost her lucrative endorsements. She said tennis never made her feel unwelcome, but some outside the sport did, noting that being homosexual was grounds to deny U.S. citizenship at the time when she became an American.

``It was something I couldn't even talk about,'' she said.

At the Hall of Fame ceremony, Dr. Renee Richards, who once helped coach Navratilova, presented her for induction, calling her ``a true freedom fighter.''

Billie Jean King also attended the ceremony, to help induct Robert Kelleher, who led the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association into the Open era. Australian Davis Cup star Malcolm Anderson, a 6-foot-1 serve-and-vollyer, also was inducted.

Outside of tennis, Navratilova continues her activism, most recently promoting a credit card that channels donations to gay and lesbian groups.

Last week, she had a brief reprise at Wimbledon, reaching the quarterfinals in doubles. She plans to continue playing, saying she was looking for a partner for the U.S. Open.

``I thought if I didn't pick up a tennis ball the rest of my life, I wouldn't need it,'' she said. ``I was wrong.''