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Martina Navratilova

23 February 2021

4 mins

Author: Sam Chambers

Martina Navratilova was born in Prague in 1956, at the time part of Czechoslovakia. From a sporting family she began hitting a tennis ball off a concrete wall aged 4 before beginning to play regularly aged 7. When aged just 15, she won the Czechoslovakian national championship and the following year had her debut on the United States Lawn Tennis Association professional tour. In the late 1970s Navratilova became one of the leading players in the female tennis game, winning Wimbledon in 1978 and with it the World Number One spot. In 1981 her third major singles was won, the Australian open, but it was for other reasons that 1981 became a year of great attention for Martina Navratilova.

Navratilova had begun to realise she was not straight around the same time she left her home country for America. As one of the top tennis players in the world, she had begun to find questions of her personal life were more common from the press. Martina had begun to deflect these, saying it was to stay personal. But after meeting Rita Mae Brown, an American writer,  and being introduced to more politically active lesbians, Navratilova began to think about coming out publicly.

In an interview with the New York Daily News’ Steve Goldstein, Martina Navratilova came out as bisexual, revealing she had been in a relationship with Rita Mae Brown. Despite giving the interview, Navratilova asked for the article not to be published until she felt comfortable coming out in public. The New York Daily News ignored this request, and the article was published on the 30th July 1981. Following the revelation, Navratilova and her then girlfriend, Nancy Lieberman, were interviewed for the Dallas Morning News, with Martina reiterating she was bisexual whilst Lieberman identified as straight.

Fears that coming out would result in the loss of sponsorship for herself and even the women’s game overall did not come to fruition at the time. She still had sponsors for her equipment as she had before after coming out, but she is sure she missed out on other opportunities. Recalling how advertising agencies reacted she said in recent years “But I couldn’t get any deals outside of that in the U.S., because I was out. They would call my agent about a commercial or something, and she would say, ‘How about Martina?’ and they would say no and then Chris Evert would get the deal, or somebody else. It was the kiss of death. Advertisers wouldn’t touch me with a ten-foot pole.”

Her experience on the court didn’t suffer, not only did she maintain good form but the support from fans was good and never dropped. After losing a game to Tracy Austin just a few months after coming out, Navratilova received large applause from the crowd showing their acceptance.

Her career following her public coming out went from strength to strength and at her retirement, she had competed in 32 Grand Slam singles finals, winning 18 and losing 14. Between 1983 and 1984 she won 6 consecutive Grand Slams, dominating the women’s game. Her records are unmatched in the male side of the sport either as Martina also had a successful doubles career and to date, she holds the record for most Grand Slam Titles won by a player, 59 combined in singles and doubles.

Over time, Navratilova would begin to identify as lesbian settling into a long term relationships first with Judy Nelson before eventually marrying Julia Lemigova in 2014. She has been part of campaigns to support gay rights but also courted controversy with her criticisms of transgender athletes in women’s sports. Her courage to come out and live openly as a lesbian whilst competing at the highest level of sport has served as an inspiration to many. Sport has often been seen as a challenging place to be LGBT and debates in sports will rage on, but Navratilova’s honesty and courage to live her life true to herself should be a message that it can be a positive experience and not lead to the end of a career or competing in sport. She let her tennis do the talking and her record and career achievements show your skills and abilities are not defined by your sexuality or gender.

“Martina Navratilova” by Paolo Rosa is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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