I will watch anything tennis-related, but this was particularly interesting – a documentary about the life of a woman who was not only the greatest female tennis player in the world whilst I was growing up, and indeed is one of the greatest of all time, but who also lived through the Prague Spring and its cruel end, saw Soviet tanks rolling through the streets of her homeland, defected to the West when she was only 18, knowing that she might never see her family and friends again, and had to deal with abuse from “fans” and discrimination from sponsors at a time when the battle for gay rights was a long way behind where it is now.
It was presented by Sue Barker, who was one of Martina Navratilova’s contemporaries on the tour and knows her well, and that was lovely because a lot of it came across as two friends chatting. We heard about Martina’s childhood in Czechoslovakia in the difficult days of the 1950s and 1960s. There were things they didn’t mention, notably her natural father committing suicide when she was a child, but you can understand why that would be too difficult for her to talk about. She spoke movingly about the Dubcek reforms, and about how she and a friend were at a tennis tournament when the Soviet tanks moved in, and the friend’s dad rang to warn them both to stay indoors but they rushed outside to see what was happening.
A generation’s grown up since the end of Cold War – people born just after the Berlin Wall came down will be 26 now, which really makes me feel old! – but it’s still all so recent. One thing that really struck me was when she said that, when she was first given a visa to go the United States to play in tournaments there, she put on 20lbs in a fortnight. Even I’ve never managed that! Junk food seemed to become a symbol of the East-West divide: it sounds ridiculous now, but it did. I remember seeing pictures on the news on the day that McDonald’s opened their first branch in Russia, with an almost unbelievably long queue outside. That was (thank you, Google!) in January 1990. Young Martina, visiting the US from communist Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, was apparently so overwhelmed with there being so much food available, that she absolutely stuffed herself all the time she was there. 20lbs in a fortnight. A little tale that tells an awful lot about the socio-economic and cultural divide of those times.
Then she defected, when she was 18. “Defected” – now there’s a word that will always be associated with the Cold War. I was only 10 when Gorbachev came to power and things started to change, but even after that we still heard about high-profile people defecting, and a lot of them were sportsmen and sportswomen. Nadia Comaneci in 1989 is one that springs to mind. Martina was only 18 when she defected. She left behind her parents and her sister – who were given a hard time because of her defection – and all her other relatives and friends. It’s so hard to imagine doing that, especially for someone so young. The Czechoslovak media treated her as a non-person: her matches weren’t televised or even reported on. Despite all that, when she returned to Czechoslovakia to play Federation Cup tennis for the US, she was welcomed as a heroine by the fans.
Happily, times have changed, she’s now a citizen of the Czech Republic as well as an American citizen, and she’s able to go back to Prague as often as she likes, but, back in 1975, no-one could have foreseen that happening. Another thing that, thankfully, has changed a lot since then is attitudes towards gay people, and it was lovely to see film of Martina’s wedding to Julia Lemigova – with Chris Evert amongst the guests – although sad that they had to have the ceremony in New York as Florida, where they live, still doesn’t allow same sex marriage. She talked about how she’d encountered some hostility from tennis-watchers because of her sexuality, and how she felt that she hadn’t got all the sponsorship deals she might have done because of it. But other people – Elton John and Stephen Fry both featured a lot – spoke about how she’d been a wonderful role model for LGBT people. It’s not necessarily part of the job of sports people to be spokespeople or role models for any particular section of the community, but many of them do fulfil that role and do it wonderfully well. (Incidentally, the infamous Twitter conversation between Donald Trump and Serena Williams was a fake!)
Many other aspects of Martina’s life and career were also touched on. Her amazing rivalry with Chris Evert – they met in 14 Grand Slam finals – , her brush with breast cancer, how she led the way in improving fitness levels within the sport, and that unpleasant court battle when she and Judy Nelson split up. It was shown during Wimbledon, which was fitting, but it went way beyond tennis. Well worth watching.