Navratilova was resolutely fearless for over three decades on tour
All you need to know about Martina Navratilova is her record 354 singles, doubles and mixed titles -- a number that's simply untouchable. It's the most complete tennis career in history, and more so, the effect she had on the game is very much still alive today.
In April, ESPN.com asked you, the users, to name tennis' greatest living legends. On May 5, we began rolling out your top five in ascending order, beginning with the "Rocket" Rod Laver at No. 5. The remaining legends will be presented each day, until No. 1 is revealed on Friday, May 9.
It's only 7 a.m., Mountain Time, but Martina Navratilova -- sitting in bed with Tuli, a wrinkly Rhodesian ridgeback, and Grace, a Japanese Chin -- is already planning her day in Aspen, Colo.
"There's fresh snow and I'm going to hit the bumps, friendly bumps on Aspen Mountain," she said a few weeks ago, with an unnerving enthusiasm. "I'll ski for a couple of hours, then go play hockey. I play intermediate pickup games, scrimmages, really. That's my idea of heaven, a perfect day.
"By two o'clock, I'll be completely done."
This is understandable, of course. For those of you scoring at home, Navratilova is now 51 years old. When she turned 50 she was introduced as the health and fitness ambassador to the AARP's 39 million members. Clearly, advanced age hasn't prevented her from continuing to crash her way to the net.
Thirty-five years ago this month a pudgy but powerful 16-year-old from Prague, Czechoslovakia, played in her first Grand Slam singles tournament. It was a glimpse of the future, a flash of the athleticism that wouldn't fully visit women's tennis for a number of years. Navratilova made the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, embarking on one of the most successful tennis careers ever, if victories mean anything.
Most Career Titles
|Billie Jean King||67||101||11||179|
"Obviously, she played in an era when singles and doubles and mixed were part of a great champion's résumé," said Pam Shriver, Navratilova's doubles partner for a decade. "To me, total titles carries a lot of weight. It's one of the most impressive numbers in tennis and it will never be touched again."
Rarely is it safe to say never in sports, but Shriver is probably right. There is quality, too, in Navratilova's prodigious quantity.
Navratilova won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, the same number as her gifted rival Chris Evert. Margaret Smith Court wouldn't have won 24 major singles titles (the all-time record) if she had felt that same, intense peer pressure; Court retired after the 1975 season, before Navratilova won her first Grand Slam. Similarly, Steffi Graf won 22 major singles titles, but was never seriously challenged after Monica Seles left tennis for more than two years after a 1993 stabbing incident.
What accomplishment is Navratilova proudest of?
"The whole body of work," she said. "When you really look at the numbers, it's pretty cool. I don't think about except when I talk to you guys. I'm also very balanced with singles and the doubles. You don't see that that much anymore. Roger [Federer], if he did it, would be one of the best doubles players. I'd love to see him make those shots from different angles. I'd also like to see Bob Bryan playing singles."
And while she no longer plays big-time tennis, Navratilova still makes time for exhibition tennis. Back in March, she and Graf sold out Tokyo's Ariake Stadium. Graf won their match 8-7, with a 10-5 tiebreaker. In addition to providing commentary for the Tennis Channel at the French Open and Wimbledon, Navratilova will be playing senior doubles with Helena Sukova at Wimbledon, three World Team Tennis matches over the summer, then senior singles at the U.S. Open.
She says she could still be competitive if she could find the time to work at it.
"I could still produce the tennis, but it just takes over my life," Navratilova said. "I have so many things to do, I like the freedom of not playing all the time."
Navratilova, who over the years has written mysteries, a fitness book and her autobiography, has a new passion. She and artist Juraj Kralik have developed a unique partnership. They create art with paint-drenched balls, which Navratilova hits onto the canvas. You can see them on her Web site.
Mostly these days, Navratilova enjoys physical exercise. She said she recently played seven hockey games over a three-day weekend in Colorado.
"I wasn't sore, just tired," she said. "I'm in great shape for my age."
Greatest Living Legends
|May 5||Rod Laver|
|May 6||Martina Navratilova|
|May 7||Bjorn Borg|
|May 8||Steffi Graf|
|May 9||Pete Sampras|
"To me, longevity is always something that puts the all-time greats in another category," said Shriver, who once teamed with Navratilova to win 109 consecutive matches. "Her greatness is led by her athleticism and physicality, and closely matched by her intellectual attack of how to make herself her best.
"She had all-century power and athleticism, and then she overcame some of her emotional frailties and conquered her demons. It's harder to get in great mental shape than physical shape, and she managed to do both."
Said Navratilova, "That single-mindedness of purpose, it's great for sports but not so great for relationships. You set a goal and go for it.
"Now I'd rather play well and lose than play lousy and win. I'm still competitive with myself. Even playing something like Balderdash, I want to win."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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