Martina Navratilova is going to be 50 this year. She’s had one amazing life and I want to write about her because I think she is the kind of women we could all use as a role model.

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1956, Navratilova was already a rising tennis star when she chose to defect to the USA in 1975. Her tennis career was phenomenal: she broke numerous records, winning unprecedented titles in an astonishingly long period of amazing success, and changing the women’s game forever (I won’t give a tedious list of statistics to prove the aptness of all those superlatives – just check out the links below if you want to know more!) By 1981 she had become a naturalised US citizen and she then came out as a lesbian, having wisely chosen not to mention that to the immigration officials responsible for deciding her naturalisation application. She faced jeering crowds for a time, and snide comments from journalists, but her persistence and her winning mentality brought her continued success on the court and eventually she won the acclaim and respect that she so richly deserved off the court.

Navratilova herself is admirable even aside from her sporting achievements. Her integrity and good sense are remarkable and very much worth emphasising.

For example, a few years ago in an interview for a German newspaper, Navratilova said something along these lines (this is a translation taken from the CNN interview, see below):

“The most absurd part of my escape from the unjust system [of Communism, in Czechoslovakia] is that I have exchanged one system that suppresses free opinion for another. The Republicans in the U.S. manipulate public opinion and sweep controversial issues under the table. It’s depressing. Decisions in America are based solely on the question of how much money will come out of it and not on the questions of how much health, morals or environment suffer as a result.”

For this she was widely condemned as unpatriotic and un-American. For example, when interviewing Navratilova for CNN, Connie Chung said:

“Can I be honest with you? I can tell you that when I read this, I have to tell you that I thought it was un-American, unpatriotic. I wanted to say, go back to Czechoslovakia. You know, if you don’t like it here, this a country that gave you so much, gave you the freedom to do what you want… Go ahead and think that at home. But why do you have to spill it out? You know, why do you have to talk about it as a celebrity so that people will write it down and talk about what you said?… Well, you know the old line, love it or leave it.”Navratilova responded with clear good sense, dignity and spark:

“I’m giving it back. This is why I speak out. When I see something that I don’t like, I’m going to speak out because you can do that here. And again, I feel there are too many things happening that are taking our rights away… I think athletes have a duty to speak out when there is something that’s not right, when they feel that perhaps social issues are not being paid attention to. As a woman, as a lesbian, as a woman athlete, there is a whole bunch of barriers that I’ve had to jump over, and we shouldn’t have to be jumping over them any more… But when you say go back to Czech Republic, why are you sending me back there? I live here. I love this country. I’ve lived here 27 years. I’ve paid taxes here for 27 years. Do I not have a right to speak out? Why is that unpatriotic?… I love it and I’m here and I’m trying to do my best to make it a better place to live in, not just this country, but the whole world. And, you know, I’m doing my little part. And I’m just a tennis player.”Something for us all to remember, whenever we hear “Hey, ungrateful foreigner, we gave you freedom and stuff! If you don’t like it here you can always go home!” given as a response to any immigrant or asylum seeker who criticises some aspect of their new country.

In another interview, just this weekend, Navratilova showed her colours again, and gave us all yet more reason to respect and admire her.

To begin with, the context of the interview is Navratilova’s new book, Shape Your Self, a self-help book for people who want to get fitter and healthier and to improve their life quality. I’ve read the first chapter (see below) and it looks to me like on the whole a positive book designed to help people improve their health and happiness through better habits – nutrition, exercise and mental attitude. The interviewer tried quite hard to get her victim to say something mean about fat people, but she failed. Navratilova is not about making people feel bad or stupid or ugly, just for being overweight. She was quite clear that in her view people who are very overweight will feel a lot happier, healthier and more energetic if they start taking on board a few of her tips and that, almost incidentally, they will as a result shed some or all of the excess weight. But she was absolutely clear that anyone who is happy with their weight is fine by her, however heavy they are.

During this interview Navratilova also talks about her roots in what is now the Czech Republic, about her tennis past and future, about her other interests. She cares deeply about women’s rights, and about gay rights – especially but not only in the context of sport. She is convinced that it is only a matter of time before equality becomes a reality, because she believes that what is fair is inevitable. She is certainly clear that things are a lot easier now for women in general and lesbians in particular than it was for her in her youth; and is convinced that in time it will become better still and that the discrimination of today and yesterday will seem as laughable, as impossible as the ban on inter-racial marraige that was only lifted in the USA in 1967.

Martina Navratilova: a beautiful, powerful, intelligent, uncompromising woman with all the dignity, integrity and self-assurance needed to be my role model No 1.

CNN – Connie Chung interview
BBC World Service: The Interview (available to listen again, this week only)
Rodale Press – first chapter of Navratilova’s latest book, Shape Your Self
Wikipedia entry – Martina Navrátilová
BBC Sport – Wimbledon legends: Martina Navratilova
The Guardian – Interview: Martina Navratilova
Newsweek – Interview
CNN – Navratilova participates in gay rights march