CHENNAI:The word ‘champion’ is thrown around casually these days. Sometimes just a handful of good showings cause pundits to get all hyperbolic. However, a key ingredient in becoming a champion is overcoming adversity for an extended period of time. That separates flash-in-the-pan players from bona fide legends.
One name that evokes unanimous awe when it’s uttered is Martina Navratilova, possibly the greatest women’s player of all time. Just tabling her record in tennis requires pages — 59 Grand Slam titles (18 in singles) and 569 combined weeks at No 1 (singles & doubles) are just two examples!
Credited with taking the fitness regimen to a whole new level, this Czech-born serve & volleyer’s biggest battle was remaining true to her identity as a gay athlete. She came out almost 35 years ago, which resulted in the loss of many sponsorships and a general rejection from the public. Regardless, she soldiered on, never one to shy away from a fight.
“The fact that I came out affected me in a positive way — I was able to play better tennis and become the person that I am,” she says.
A Laureus World Sports Academy member, the southpaw feels fighting for recognition has borne fruit, no matter how gradual. More importantly though, she thinks perspective is the need of the hour.
“We still have countries where homosexuality is punishable by death. In America, we are fighting for equal rights and the right to marry. Elsewhere, people are fighting for the right to stay alive. So, it’s a different situation and the decision to come out or not is individual.”
Even so, what still intrigues the nine-time Wimbledon winner is that no male tennis players have following her lead. She would like more athletes to come out, but believes it’s more difficult in team sports than in individual sports.
“On the tennis court, I would certainly like to see more players come out. I can’t believe that no male player has taken that step. But with each passing celebrity or athlete coming out, it becomes less of a big deal and that’s eventually what we want it to be, for it to not matter at all,” the 58-year-old opines.
Another of the US citizen’s hallmarks is unparalleled longevity — she won a mixed doubles Major with Leander Paes just short of her 50th birthday — and her one-time partner seems to be following the template set by her. According to her, Leander has some of the best hands in the business.
“The body starts reacting differently once you reach your 30s and to keep it going at such a high level in your 40s requires a combination of genes, hard work and luck. Also, it’s a little bit easier, to play doubles than to play singles. Leander’s got one of the best hands ever to play the sport — he could play in a wheelchair and still compete out there!”
Once a champion, always a champion. That’s how the saying goes. How can anyone disagree!