Originally published on Advocate.com March 08 2011 5:00 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.
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Navratilova has a cold, and she cut her left index finger with a bread knife earlier this morning. There’s no real talk of editorial control, nor is she anything but a gracious host. When I ask how she’s doing, post–cancer treatment, post–Kilimanjaro scare, she answers cheerfully, the same way when people ask about her woodworking pursuits. “Ten fingers!” she says with a smile, holding up both hands. “Ten fingers, 10 toes, and two boobs.” Her prognosis following treatment is excellent. “Less than 5% chance of it coming back,” she says. “I like those odds. If it comes back, I’ll deal with it. If it doesn’t, great. I just had my mammogram last week, and it’s all clear.”
Drinking mineral water and wearing a burgundy cashmere sweater, chic gray sweatpants, and a white ceramic watch, Navratilova is indeed lucky to be alive today, even if she isn’t about to dwell on it. (“She doesn’t sit around wondering or fidgeting,” Billie Jean King said of Navratilova to CNN last year. “She just gets into action.”)
High-altitude pulmonary edema is no laughing matter. Fluid buildup in the lungs can lead to respiratory failure and ultimately death. A handful of people die each year on Mount Kilimanjaro, the majority from complications of acute mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary edema or cerebral edema. Navratilova had pledged to climb the peak as part of a 27-person team representing the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, an international nonprofit community athletics program of which she’s been a longtime supporter. She started the trek off at a minus, suffering from diarrhea, likely a result of having eaten bad fish just prior to the expedition. For Navratilova, the first day was a relatively easy eight-hour climb. But the weather was horrible: torrential rain — and, in higher elevations, snow. Even some of the porters weren’t feeling well.
Navratilova began to lose her appetite, and by day 4 she was gasping for air. Any chance of reaching the summit vanished. “It wasn’t painful. Nothing hurt — I just couldn’t breathe,” she says. “I’ve never had anything life-threatening like this, other than the cancer, which would have been a long-term killer. That’s what scared me afterward. If I didn’t say anything and had gone to sleep, it could have been trouble.”
Yet she sees an upside to the disappointment. “We raised a lot of money and a lot of awareness, which were the goals. The goals were met because of everyone else, and my failure,” Navratilova says with a laugh. “Perhaps we wouldn’t have gotten as much publicity if I had made it to the top.”
The pace of life north of Aspen is slow, but whether here or elsewhere in the world, Navratilova is still very much in touch as an activist — someone who more than 18 years ago was a plaintiff in Romer v. Evans, a lawsuit against Colorado’s odious Amendment 2, which denied any antidiscrimination protections to gay, lesbian, and bisexual residents. While on tour in the early 1990s she was highly vocal about her opposition to the measure — at a time when it wasn’t nearly as compulsory for celebrities to have causes, especially controversial ones. Navratilova was insistent. “Wouldn’t you want me on the front lines?” she asked Sports Illustrated in 1992, shortly after the amendment’s passage (in the article the writer implied that Navratilova’s activism was sucking her attention away from the sport). A few years later the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the amendment. It’s now cited invariably in lawsuits over gay rights, including the challenges against the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8.
“If Amendment 2 came up again, it would be defeated soundly. Despite what all the lovely people in Colorado Springs are trying to do,” she says of the American evangelical capital. And perhaps she's right. As of press time, the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee just approved a state civil unions bill.
There are certain characteristics that mark an effective activist. Indefatigability and enduring outrage are among them, and Navratilova has both when she speaks about injustice continually inflicted on gay people. Of the teens who have hanged themselves, overdosed, or jumped off bridges over the past year: “What a price to pay to bring attention to bullying in schools and what it does to kids. Kevin Jennings [cofounder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network and now an assistant deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education] has been yelling and screaming about that for years. And now it’s getting the attention it should have had years ago.” Of lawmakers who use homophobia for political advantage: “I just want to strangle these mostly Republicans who just refuse to recognize hate crimes and who equate homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia. And they get away with it. The way they’re bashing Obama is unbelievable. Why is it OK for them to be bullies?” And of Democrats: “They can’t keep backing down! Stand up. I did not agree with [President George W.] Bush, but he stood up for what he believed in, and he just didn’t back away. Even in the face of facts. Obama, he’s got such a hard sell, but I still think he backs off too much.”
Backing off — not something you can accuse Navratilova of doing in her career, even though she hasn’t always lived her life on her own terms. Thirty years ago, in 1981, she gave a reporter for the New York Daily News an interview that included comments about her personal life and sexual orientation, but ultimately did so with the understanding that the journalist wouldn’t run the story until Navratilova decided herself to go public. Today she recalls that she wanted to come out a few years earlier but was told not to, that it would damage the women’s tour. In 1980 she had been passed over for president of the Women’s Tennis Association players’ union in favor of Chris Evert, mainly the result, she has said, of her sexual orientation, which she was up-front about with the tour’s board of directors. Coming out might mean loss of sponsorship appeal, as happened to Billie Jean King in 1981, when she was outed by her secretary, Marilyn Barnett, who filed a palimony suit against her.
Navratilova also had been working toward obtaining her U.S. citizenship, which she gained in the summer of 1981. “From 1952 to 1990, LGBT people were barred by law from entering the U.S., first as ‘psychopathic personalities’ and later as ‘sexual deviants,’” says Immigration Equality executive director Rachel B. Tiven. “A court decision in 1983 took the teeth out of it, but if Martina had admitted to being gay, she could have been denied entry on that basis.”
At the time of the Daily News interview, Navratilova was dating professional basketball star Nancy Lieberman, who was not out of the closet. After she became a citizen, Navratilova still refused to go on-record, though the newspaper ran her comments anyway, on July 30, 1981. But she never denied her sexuality, she says. “And I’m proud of that.”
The rest is history. But here’s a sampling of what she went through: Navratilova would be heckled on one occasion, in a U.S. Open match against Evert, for not being a “real” woman; accused in the media of using steroids (she wasn’t); and dubbed “a walking mixed doubles team” by a sports columnist ridiculing her early comments that she was bisexual. It took years for her persona to become symbiotic with the more progressive elements of the corporate sponsorship world. She dominated women’s tennis with an incomparable serve-and-volley finesse and has competed into her 50s on the doubles tour with players a third her age, yet every soured relationship seemed to bring with it tabloid stories that rivaled her athletic headlines.
Among the harshest accusations leveled by critics is that she’s used anti–gay marriage laws to her advantage in court. “Martina is a gay and lesbian hypocrite. She says she is a big advocate for gay and lesbian rights, but only when it’s convenient,” Ray Rafool, the attorney for Navratilova’s ex-partner Toni Layton, said in 2009. Layton claimed, among other things, that Navratilova had grabbed her by the arms, slammed her against a wall, and offered her a pittance for a settlement as a result of their breakup. “If this were a no-fault heterosexual divorce, the law would unequivocally side with Layton, awarding her alimony and some division of property,” wrote Louis Bayard in Salon. He added, “Martina Navratilova can no longer cast herself as an apostle for gay rights while using a homophobic legal code to deny her ex-partners alimony. This is more than bad behavior, it is bad precedent.”
This is the only moment of the afternoon when editorial control rears its head. But it’s Navratilova who’s struggling to control her own content. When I ask her if there’s anything she’d like to clear up about her latest chapter of personal legal troubles, she begins by saying firmly, “The lawsuit’s still not done. And I can’t talk about it.” She sighs, and then continues, “I would like to. Well, I don’t even know if — I can’t say anything. My lawyer says, ‘No, you cannot even say one word.’ Because I would get in trouble for it, no matter what I say.”
Another sigh. “But I can say that a lot that has been said is not true. I can say that. But I can’t tell you which part. Because I’ll probably get sued again.”
Is she aggravated by what’s written about her? “I don’t read it, for the most part,” she says. “I think the unfair bit is that they would just print whatever was said without checking. And double-checking. I mean, you’ve known me for 30 years, you know who I am. You’re printing stuff from someone who you don’t know anything about. But that’s the media now. They get lazy. Rumors become fact. Some blogger says something, next thing you know it’s in USA Today.” Her mantra is a ballsier version of the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-quoted, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” She says, “You can write that you think I’m an asshole. But you can’t write, ‘She is an asshole.’”
And then she revisits that damn CNN ticker. Martina Quits. “Argh! Not true! I’m not a quitter! It’s better not to know. And it’s yesterday’s news so quickly now.”
It would be inaccurate to say that Martina Navratilova spends the better part of an interview at a mountain home north of Aspen ranting about purported mistruths about her, writ large in our scandal-obsessed media. She is warm and welcoming. She especially lights up when talking about tennis — her professional record, Justine Henin’s brilliance (“That backhand should be put in a museum”), and the exhibition and invitational matches she still plays in, including one at Wimbledon last summer, where she won the ladies’ invitational doubles final with 1998 singles champion Jana Novotna. She arrived at the tournament a mere four days after her last radiation treatment. “Oh, it’s just a treat! And this last year was the first time I played with the roof,” Navratilova says of Wimbledon’s Centre Court (she plans to compete in the invitationals this year at Wimbledon as well as the French Open). “The ball made a different sound. There was a little echo that hadn’t been there before. So I was like, Oh! A new experience.”
But how frustrating it must be, the continued obscurity of gay and lesbian historical achievement, for those who refused to hide when it would have been more convenient (and lucrative) to do so. Sure, there’s a paper trail: At any reputable library one can find biographies of Bayard Rustin or Alice B. Toklas, or yes, Navratilova. Any number of websites, professional or homespun, can piece together a world of clandestine bars, brutal police stings, spare poetry left behind by those who have died of AIDS. But you’re still unlikely to learn in an American classroom of eras when coming-out stories of celebrities did not automatically garner a fawning cover profile in People. “I do get pissed off when I’m at some gay event and there’s a 25-year-old and he has no idea who I am,” Navratilova says. “And I say, ‘You need to know more about your gay history, boy.’ I think the younger generation takes it a little bit for granted.”
It’s hard to quibble with that; nor can I fault her desire for accuracy. Though I do wonder whether, looking back on her career and her willingness to be out, she would do anything differently.
“Nope. No. Not at all,” Navratilova says with an intense stare. “If anything, I would have been more in-your-face.”