Tennis great Martina Navratilova staying active working for her causes

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 12:10 AM

The year isn't long enough for Martina Navratilova to do all she wants to do. Nor is a day.

And that's how she felt before she was diagnosed with breast cancer in April and launched into the debilitating radiation treatments that lasted until mid-June.

By all indications fully rid of the cancer, Navratilova has plunged back into the frantic pace of a life that, at 54, revolves more around the causes she's passionate about than it does the sport she has loved since childhood.

But when tennis and a heartfelt cause converge - as they will Monday, when Navratilova comes to Washington, along with Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, to compete in an exhibition at American University hosted by Billie Jean King and Elton John to benefit the fight against AIDS - it is, as Navratilova puts it, "a no-brainer."

The World Team Tennis Smash Hits event at Bender Arena is just one item on Navratilova's itinerary next week. Before heading home to Aspen, Colo., she'll visit Baltimore to compete in Pam Shriver's annual Silver Tennis Ball benefiting local children's charities. Then she'll return to Washington for the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce gala.

Then, in early December, comes the challenge she has pointed toward for a year now - a climb of Mount Kilamanjaro, at more than 19,000 feet the tallest peak in Africa, to benefit the Laureas Sport for Good Foundation, which supports community sports projects for children around the world.

"This is for kids who want to have the opportunity to play sports," Navratilova said, asked what the seven-day ascent represented to her. " But on a personal level, hopefully it will represent a positive, finishing touch to a year that pretty much sucked."

She laughed.

"I'm still here," she added. "I had a birthday last month. And when people ask me, 'How are you doing?' I say, 'I have 10 toes, 10 fingers and two boobs!' "

It's tricky to pin a retirement date on Navratilova because she refuses to put down her racket. After stepping away from a brilliant singles career in which she won 18 Grand Slam titles, she competed in doubles and mixed doubles until the brink of her 50th birthday, bringing her total of major titles to 59.

On Friday - just two days after climbing the 55 flights of stairs in New York's Bank of America building as a training exercise for Kilamanjaro - she played tennis with former pro Katrina Adams at the Harlem Tennis Center.

Hiking up the skyscraper barely left her winded, she said - a good sign for next month's climb, which is expected to take seven days. Though there are traces of radiation still coursing through her body, Navratilova says she feels great. And she aced a recent test at an altitude training center in London.

"I have the lungs of a 30-year-old!" she said. "It's just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other."

That's essentially the strategy she took after getting over the initial shock of the April mammogram, which detected a noninvasive form of breast cancer at an early stage. The lumpectomy was easier than she feared, she said; the radiation, more difficult.

But she learned, perhaps for the first time in her life, to accept the offers of help and support from her friends and family. And she was ultimately reminded of some things she already knew.

"It just reinforced in my mind how strong women are," Navratilova said. "And my positive attitude was very handy."

Today, Navratilova is immersed anew in the issues that drive her - the environment, gay rights, politics and youth sports, among them.

"I played tennis because I love playing tennis, and I wanted to be the best at it," Navratilova said. "But I didn't feel better about myself as a human being if I won or lost. I'm very interested in other things. I'm very curious and well versed in what's going on the world. I love traveling the world. My only regret is that I won't see everything I want to see before I go."

l Note: Now in its 18th year, WTT Smash Hits has raised nearly $10 million for the Elton John AIDS Foundation and local charities. The Washington AIDS Partnership is the co-beneficiary of Monday's event. Tickets are $40-$120. For information, or call 202-552-5999. In addition, all of the participants, including King and John, will take part in a pre-event reception and auction at 5:30 p.m. Tickets for that are $500. Call 202-939-3381 for information.

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