THE TIMES – May 27, 2006
– Ginny Dougary
Tennis champion Martina Navratilova is so passionate about keeping fit that she’s written a book about it. She tells Ginny Dougary about life as a bionic woman.
There’s something faintly discombobulating about coming face to face with a legend from your youth and discovering that she is almost exactly the same age (bar one day) as you are now. In 1978, when Martina Navratilova won the first of her nine Wimbledon singles titles — an unbeaten record — I was still a layabout student. Throughout the Eighties, while she was smashing her way into tennis history, others of us were travelling or having babies, or working out what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives.
If people wonder at the marvel of Madonna’s physique — another contemporary, give or take a year — how much more marvellous is it that Navratilova made her comeback at 46, three years ago, in a sport that routinely spits out players who are decades younger? In January 2003 she won the Australian Open mixed doubles (with Leander Paes), making her the oldest winner, male or female, of a Grand Slam title.
That year she also won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon, tieing a record 20 Wimbledon titles held by Billie Jean King.
Navratilova does not, suffice to say, suffer from self-doubt. She is an engaging and popular figure but humour is probably not her strongest suit. She does not do frivolity and appears as discombobulated, in turn, by the manner of some of my questions. At one point when she gives me a severe look, I explain that I am only being light-hearted, and she replies: “Oh good. You see, I take myself too seriously.” When I begin to say that she may be a miracle bionic person, she insists, without a trace of irony: “I am. I am.” She tells me that when she was still battling away at 35, a commentator asked Billie Jean how long Navratilova could possibly keep going like this, to which King replied: “With her body, ’til she’s 50, for sure.” “And here I am. So she was right.” Navratilova’s body, as much as that of any other superb athlete, is her livelihood. There is a way in which she defines herself by it, but it is also something oddly detached from her, like a streamlined machine that she feels she has a responsibility to service. “My body needs to move to feel good,” she says. “Just to exist. Like a racehorse, it’s got to run.” But the message of her new “self-help book” is that we, too, can have a body if not like hers, at least one that functions to the best of its ability.
We meet in her rented apartment next to the Spanish Steps in Rome, where she is playing doubles in the Italian Open Tennis Tournament. She is, as ever, focused on her game and looks nonplussed when I ask whether she’s had a chance to check out the house next door, where Keats and Shelley lived. I was expecting light and luxe and gorgeous views from the balcony overlooking the cobbled piazza below, but we sit in a dark, airless room, with unapppealing furnishings. She is in tracksuit and socks, nursing a dodgy right knee (the left one underwent surgery recently), and has none of the blonde highlights or artful make-up of recent photographs. I am the last person to expect a woman of substance to conform to this sort of glamorous stereotype, but the whole atmosphere feels a bit, well, Eastern bloc, as we sit there cradling our plastic bottles of water in the gloom.
She is direct. When I say that I am not a great reader of these sorts of books, as she can probably tell, she laughs (perfectly pleasantly) and says: “You may be happy with the weight you are, which is fine, but most people aren’t.” This probably sounds harsher than it felt because she is pragmatic about such matters rather than judgmental. Besides, when she defected to the United States from Czechoslovakia, at 19, and discovered the joys of junk food, she was branded “The Great Wide Hope”. “That wasn’t rude,” she says. “It was honest, because I was.” For years, her body has been a temple of purity and, as such, she seems to be remarkably vulnerable to any pollution.
The conundrum being that superwoman though she undoubtedly is, she may be less robust than us lesser mortals. “Dairy,” for instance, “really knocks me down big-time.” Wheat? “It’s OK, but it sends me to sleep.” If she has more than a couple of sips of red wine (which she says she loves but it doesn’t love her), she feels terrible. Smoking (cigarettes), of course, is a complete no-no. Dope? “I can’t tell you that. Let’s just say I dabbled.” (A big giggle.) She got a terrible lurgy from mould in her suitcases when they became waterlogged at Heathrow in the storms of 2004; a story she recounts, with a measure of aggravated pleasure, furnishing minute details of the dampness that had permeated layers of leather grips on her tennis rackets.
Her book, Shape Your Self (an inspirational guide to achieving your personal best), may be a daunting title, but it’s not a daunting read. Navratilova’s entirely sensible view is that “most people know what they should and should not be doing, it’s just that they don’t know how to get there”. She says: “I think it talks to people, not at them. It’s humorous; there are stories (from her own life) that people can relate to and I give people the tools with which they can make little bitty steps, without feeling deprived or stressed.” She is passionately pro organic and raw foods, and anti GM and pesticides. When she goes to people’s houses, she tells me, she always opens their refrigerators to see what they’re eating, and believes that if she can motivate people to get informed about what they’re putting into their bodies, “this might be the most important thing I have ever done”.
There is no doubting her sincerity and that her motivation to write the book was to help people: “I actually tell people not to tell their friends to buy the book; figure it out and pass it on. I really don’t care if a hundred thousand copies sell or a million, as long as it helps as many people as possible.” The tone of the book is far from hectoring, but I wonder whether she finds herself lecturing people in person: “I do have a tendency that way, but I try not to. I’m strong and to the point. I don’t bullshit around. I say ‘here’s the deal; this is what they do to these animals and if you don’t want to know so that you don’t feel guilty about eating it, then probably you shouldn’t be eating it and you probably should know.’” (This had nil effect on her friend and old rival Chris Evert, who listened politely to Navratilova’s lecture about not “eating babies” before turning to the waiter and saying: “And I’d like my lamb medium rare.”) I ask Navratilova whether she would be as forthright with someone in a position of power and influence: “I don’t know that many powerful, influential people, but I’m sure I would.” Would she, for instance, tell the Queen that “a whole bunch of homeless people could use your fur coat; I’m sure you have another option to keep warm”. (As she has been known to say to others.) “I think that’ s where you draw the line. You do not tell the Queen what to do! But I think I would tease her because she’s got a good sense of humour. The Queen is a very cool woman.”
While she enjoyed her mini-retirement, taking up woodwork, snowboarding and flying lessons, Navratilova slackened off on her fitness regimen and both she and her body rebelled: “I was pissed off that I had all this time, but I wasn’t able to do everything I wanted to do because I was too tired and out of shape.” So while she continued to play soccer and basketball and river swimming (she doesn’t care to do laps in a pool), she also returned to the treadmill and thence to the tennis courts. “Once I was back in shape, I thought I might as well play because I’m ready to go, and it seemed a waste of talent if I didn’t.” Does she have high self-esteem? “I have my feet on the ground, pretty firmly planted, although sometimes I float off and think I’m better than I am. I have a healthy self-esteem. I know what my strengths are and my weaknesses and I’m willing to admit them, but perhaps not in public,” she laughs.
Being in tip-top condition is no guarantee, apparently, for a trouble-free menopause. Navratilova says she’s bang in the middle of it, with hot flushes, sleepless nights and mood swings. She’s been using a hormone cream to help with the former but still suffers from the latter. “My honey says, ‘You’re over-reacting’, and I say, ‘I have a right to be pissed off, you know!’ So now I think I have to take a chill pill when I get irritable, but at least I have an excuse.”
The couple have been an item for the past six years but the tennis champion’s partner prefers to remain anonymous. She says that if she’d had her way she would have kept a Greta Garbo veil of secrecy over all her previous paramours: “But I wanted them to be with me when I was playing tennis, so they became public. You know, I wasn’t hiding anything but neither was I throwing it in anybody’s faces.”
The most public of her relationships was her seven-year stretch with Judy Nelson, a former Texan beauty queen, who left her husband for Navratilova. The break-up led to a messy palimony suit and worldwide press coverage. It may be ancient history — the couple split 15 years ago — but Navratilova still feels incredibly bitter about the fallout (see her book extract overleaf.) I wonder why she felt compelled to revisit such painful territory in what is, after all, a diet and exercise book. “I wanted to tell people because they think I’ve had this wonderful life, but I’ve had my problems. I’ve had my share of disappointments and that was a big one, “she says. “This person was not who I thought she was.” She is clearly torn between wanting to keep a discreet silence about the end of the affair and feeling compelled to explain her sense of betrayal.
“Look, let’s just say we had problems and she (Judy) said, ‘Oh, it’s all about your tennis. There’s nothing wrong with us.’ And there was something wrong with us, but because she was ten years older, I deferred to her. After we split and I started going to therapy, that’s when I realised that there had been something wrong with our relationship. When you split up and they want half of everything you made because, according to her, she did everything but hit the ball. Well, excuse me, I was hitting that ball before we got together. It’s not like she contributed to me being able to do this. She said that ‘if you leave me all I ever want are the dogs’, but when we split her philosophy changed. Her actions and her words did not match.”
So you’re clearly not exactly friendly. “No, but it’s not because of the split. We’re not friends because she totally betrayed me, and sold her story to the National Enquirer about stuff which was extremely private a year after we split up.”
Her birth father committed suicide shortly after leaving his wife when their daughter Martina was small. But she has no depressive tendencies, she says. “I’ve had dark moments, but who hasn’t? I’m not a brooder and I don’t look to the past, always to the future, perhaps to a fault.” She’s learning to be more diplomatic and better at seeing things from someone else’s perspective.
Is it inevitable that if you strive to achieve something exceptional in life that you are bound to be a bit selfish? “To a degree, yes, but I think you can do it without being a prima donna or a jerk. But you do have to say, ‘OK, for me to win Wimbledon this year, I need to be able to practise, and that means I can’t go out to dinner tonight because I’ll be too tired.’ So that’s the selfish bit.” Spiritual rather than religious — “you know, I’m not a born-again or anything like that” — Navratilova had to give up meditating when she found that it impeded rather than aided her concentration on the tennis court. “You need to keep doing it to get to that higher level of consciousness. You know, the ninjas when they fight they go into this shhhhheeeeoooough zone, where everything moves in slow motion. Well, I didn’t get to that point.
Not that I would want to hurt anybody with a ball that way. But I was, like (adopting a trippy, space-cadety voice), ‘Oh, another double fault. Well, it’s no big deal.’ So I had to stop meditating because I got too mellow.”
Finally, I ask her one of my last devil’s advocate questions; “You’re full of them,” she grins. Is it not natural to experience a certain amount of fatigue as one gets older? I mean, what’s so bad about taking a nap? “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with taking naps. I love doing that. In fact, one of my best naps ever was at Wimbledon one year. It was a Friday and it had rained all afternoon,” a dreamy expression softens her chiselled face, “and the whole house slept for a couple of hours. It was the best frigging nap probably of my whole life. I still remember it.”
See Quiet on the court, please, for an extract from Martina Navratilova’s new book, Shape Your Self