Martina Navratilova is an 18-time Grand Slam singles winner, 31-time doubles winner, 10-time mixed doubles winner and a member of the Tennis Hall of Fame. A legend in the full sense of the word.
However, Navratilova is not only a cult tennis player, but also a person who changes world sports. Her life path is full of dramatic events, the most significant of which is her decision to escape from Czechoslovakia and live in the United States after the 1975 US Open.
Martina was born in Prague in 1956, and her parents divorced when she was only three years old. Together with their mother, they moved to Rzhevnica, a suburb of Prague. She spent her childhood there and started playing tennis at the age of 9 under the famous Czechoslovak coach Jiri Parma.
In 1968, during the Prague Spring, the mentor was on a business trip to Austria and decided not to return to his homeland. But he does not forget his prospective graduate and periodically sends Miroslav Navratil (Martina’s stepfather) letters with a training program for the girl.
Parting with the coach against the backdrop of stormy political events affects Navratilova’s mind, and the blows follow one after another. During this period, her mother decides to reveal the truth that her biological father did not die during the operation, as she had been lied to for a long time, but committed suicide. She also explains that the communists deprived them of a shiny and comfortable life, taking everything from her wealthy grandfather after the Second World War – properties (including a huge mansion), savings and business.
Navratilova gradually began to accumulate more and more dislike for the regime, but she did not stop training diligently.
At the age of 17, he was already the first racket of Czechoslovakia and began to participate in international tournaments. He often travels overseas and quickly falls in love with the States. And this is easily explained for a teenage girl from the social camp who meets open and carefree people, explores big and modern cities and shops in stores with stacked shelves.
He feels the taste of freedom and longs for such a life. The complete opposite of hers. In addition, in Czechoslovakia they keep her “on a leash” and withhold substantial sums from her winnings from prize funds. So Martina decided to apply for asylum in the US back in 1974, but eventually gave up, thinking of her family and friends.
“The Czechoslovak tennis federation dictated what I could and couldn’t do: one week they wouldn’t let me play, the next they’d let me play in a tournament. They even banned me from the US Open in 1975. I was third at the time or fourth in the rankings, but they told me: “You are too pro-American, you communicate a lot with American players, you ignore the Russians, the Czechs and in general – the players from the Eastern Bloc.” But at the last moment they let me go and I understood that I no longer want to it depends entirely on the Czechoslovak Tennis Federation. I left with the clear knowledge that I would not return. It was very difficult for me,” recalls Navratilova.
The US Open is off to a great start for her, with pundits and fans admiring her “service-net” game, borrowed from men’s tennis. The young Czechoslovak competitor reached the semi-finals, where she lost to the slightly more experienced local favorite Chris Evert (4:6, 4:6).
After the match, Martina refused to return to her homeland and went to the migration office with a request for a temporary residence permit in the States.
Her plan is for everything to happen quietly, but the media gets hold of the sensation and it blows up the information space. The representatives of the delegation of Czechoslovakia express their indignation at the actions of their compatriot, but they cannot influence the situation in any way on the territory of the United States.
Against the backdrop of the resulting chaos, the hosts of the US Open organize a large press conference with the participation of the main character in this saga.
“I want to be free, and the USA provides me with this opportunity – said Navratilova at the briefing. – I know that there are people here who complain about their lives. But I can only advise them to go to the countries of the socialist camp to they see what true lack of freedom is.”
Of course, in Czechoslovakia they have to react in some way to Martina’s self-will, and release a statement full of attacks, in which it is pointed out that she “chose money over patriotism” and to develop her talent on native soil.
The regime’s anger is enormous, but at the same time the authorities are trying to sweep the case under the carpet as quickly as possible, so as not to “irritate the eyes of the people”.
In addition, the authorities hope that Navratilova will reconsider her decision and return. An employee of the Czechoslovak embassy in the US meets with her and promises her that all will be forgiven and forgotten if she comes home before her tourist visa expires. However, Martina is not at all convinced of this.
Before the visit to the immigration services, she reveals what she has in mind only to her stepfather, whom she loves very much. The tennis player is afraid that the communists will chase away her relatives, but she does not believe that there will be harassment, as there would be in a similar case in the USSR. Navratilova considers the Soviet system extremely cruel and admits that if she had been a Soviet citizen, she would not have dared to do what was done.
“My father knew I wasn’t coming back, and he was completely on my side. He told me, ‘Do what you think is right and don’t come back under any circumstances.’ They can pressure us to make you come, but don’t listen to us, think for yourself.” I knew my family in Czechoslovakia might have problems, but this wasn’t the USSR. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done something like that. My relatives they could have lost their jobs, but that didn’t happen either. My younger sister was still a student – and everything was fine with her. I knew there would be a reaction, but they wouldn’t be sent to prison or to Siberia,” explains Navratilova .
Czechoslovakian authorities eavesdrop on conversations between her and her parents, but this turns out to be a pointless exercise. Her decision is irreversible.
It’s worth noting that not everything in her life in the States was flowers and roses from the start.
The athlete is constantly followed by FBI agents who monitor her safety. The stress is great, since options with kidnapping and even an attempt by the special services of Czechoslovakia are not excluded.
During this period, Navratilova became a great favorite of the American public, although her career was at a standstill. The Czech woman is a huge fan of “McDonald’s” and quickly gained more than 10 kilograms, which affects her game.
However, within a few years, Martina managed to pull herself together and won her first Slam at Wimbledon in 1978. Soon after, she began sweeping everything in her path in both singles and doubles. He becomes a superstar worldwide. In Czechoslovakia, the press tried to cover her successes with the sanitary minimum, and in the USSR her name was taboo until the end of the 80s.
Navratilova received American citizenship six years after emigration (before that she used a special permit giving the right to reside in the country).
Immediately after that, she made the scandalous for those years revelation that she was a lesbian. He began working with the first transgender Grand Slam hitter, Renee Richards, and is the boyfriend of WNBA legend Nancy Lieberman.
In the early 1980s, when Martina was already a global personality, she was struck by nostalgia for Czechoslovakia. Her parents visit her, but she is not allowed to return home. Only in 1986 did she manage to return to Prague for the Fed Cup team tournament matches between the USA and Czechoslovakia teams. The stands welcome their compatriot with thunderous applause, and the party nomenclature realizes that she has scored an own goal. The Americans win to nil, and the officials leave the stands prematurely. The television ends the live broadcast before the end of the last fight.
“My attitude towards my homeland has never changed. I just did not have the opportunity to return. Czechoslovakia will always be my homeland, it is my home. Sometimes I feel divided in two halves. I am both Czech and American. And I am satisfied from the obtained result”, says Martina.
After the victory over her compatriot Gana Mandlikova, Navratilova burst into tears in the dressing room. Pam Shriver, Chris Evert and Zeena Garrison wonder what’s going on. Martina replies that she is “an American with a Czech heart” and that she is touched by the warm reception of the audience.
Soon the social camp collapses and Navratilova can go home often. On January 9, 2008, she regained Czech citizenship after nearly 33 years in which it was taken away.
In 2014, Martina married Moscow-born Yulia Lemigova, runner-up in the last edition of the Miss USSR contest since 1990.
The two met back in 2000 in a bar, but became boyfriends much later.
Julia has two daughters, Victoria and Emma, from her relationships with two different men.
“I’m happy! I’m really happy!”, says Martina Navratilova today.