March 08 2011 4:00 AM ET
Watch a behind the scenes interview with Martina Navratilova below.
Martina Navratilova has seen better years. She started 2010 with a fractured wrist she sustained while playing hockey — the first time, as it happens, that one of the titans of the professional sports world has ever broken a bone. Then in February, Navratilova was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was noninvasive but required a lumpectomy, followed by radiation therapy. Add to that the reported $3 million settlement of a lawsuit brought by a former partner that had spawned tabloid headlines like “Martina Navratilova Sued for Millions by ‘Wife’ After Being ‘Dumped Without Warning.’” Then bookend those misfortunes with a charity trek up Africa’s tallest peak in December that ended in a high-altitude pulmonary edema scare, an emergency descent, and days of hospitalization.
“Goodbye 2010,” she wrote on her website as the year drew to a close. “If you were a fish, I’d throw you back.”
But talking with her today, it seems almost as though the last straw came when the 54-year-old Navratilova was in a hospital bed in Nairobi, Kenya, watching CNN. “They were showing a five-minute segment on World Sport, about Martina Navratilova and the climb, they talked about what happened, and it was very accurate, and I was like, Oh, that was nice,” she says.
“Then on the ticker underneath it says, ‘Martina Navratilova Quits Her Mount Kilimanjaro Attempt,’” she continues with a wry smile. The emphasis is hers. It’s clearly an unpalatable word, even though she relates this story with a heady dose of humor threaded through the exasperation. “I can say that I quit, but nobody else can say that I quit! Because the only option of not quitting was to go up and die. So it was not a good solution. Quitting suggests that you had a choice. I did not have a choice.”
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that precise language is a sticking point for the woman whose record 167 singles titles may never be surpassed in professional tennis (Venus Williams, who has captured the most singles titles of any player competing today, sports 43 by comparison). A few days before we were scheduled to meet, either at or near her residence north of Aspen, Colo., I received an e-mail from Navratilova’s assistant, relaying a message from her business manager. The manager didn’t demand that any subject be off limits, but wrote that she needed to discuss “editorial control” — a term that basically means pre-approval for any piece to be published. That wasn’t going to happen, so I figured the assignment would be axed. But my editor made some calls, and on a 17-degree morning in Colorado I was given Navratilova’s address off a winding country road. I was told to arrive at 3 p.m.
Showing up in Aspen to interview Martina Navratilova in this context and in her own home comes with a certain set of assumptions (and anxiety: I doubted I’d fare well in the face of a recalcitrant Navratilova; during her career she was known for pouncing on press conference questions that annoyed her). I expected an imposing gate leading to an even more imposing house, the kind where Silicon Valley moguls spend long weekends. I expected the assistant to answer the door when I knocked and make me wait in an entryway for just enough time to sweat a few bullets. For some reason I expected Navratilova would have a small, expensive breed of dog.
I was wrong about all three. She has two dogs in Aspen, but neither is a shih tzu (she does own a small dog, but had to give it to a friend in New York to take care of for fear it’d be eaten by coyotes here, she says). Her two-story log cabin–style house is not gated, nor is it a marvel of modern architecture or opulent interior design. Outside is a rusty 4x4 with a "For Sale" sign in the window — the model year likely preceding Navratilova’s first Wimbledon win in 1978 — and a view of the looming Mount Sopris, unsullied by any neighboring multimillionaire pad: Navratilova owns the land in front of her home, where elk often graze. It’s quiet here, sunny, and freezing. Inside the high-ceilinged, cozy home is an old green spectator bench from Wimbledon and a local artist’s sculpture from her onetime archrival, Chris Evert. “It’s very comfortable,” she says of her friendship with Evert as she shows me around the main floor. “I know I can say anything I want to Chris about what’s going on in my life, and it’s going nowhere. And she’s going to give me exactly what she thinks with no censorship, no ulterior motive — and vice versa. We give our best to each other.”
As we sit down on a plush sectional sofa, I brace myself again for a standoffish interview, plotting my exit when we’ve reached the one-hour mark. The press, after all, essentially forced her out of the closet. Any stance the Czech-born Navratilova may take against American foreign policy or prevailing antiliberal sentiment is reliably met with an “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go back to where you came from?” response from Bill O’Reilly and his ilk. Despite her wins on the court, it’s always seemed to me that with the media, she often loses.
Story continues on next page.