The glut of adoration for Martina Navratilova came to a propitious pause about a month ago, when she decided to hide away at her home in Fort Worth and indulge in a mindless spell of domestic servitude. Nothing, save a short ski trip when she hid behind goggles and managed to be intruded upon for only one autograph, could get her out of the house.
"I wanted the quiet," Navratilova said the other day, preparing to play in the Virginia Slims tennis tournament at George Washington University's Smith Center. And she wanted to withdraw, momentarily, from the numbing "excitement of the road," where people "always stare, get up from chairs and whisper. Like in the airport just yesterday, I could hear them crowding around me, and saying, 'Come here, come see, look who's over there,' and acting a little like idiots. It's all very strange. People are. And the things they do."
Home has to be Fort Worth or the equivalent, some idle ground that offers a respite from the impossible crunch of celebrity. She once lived in Virginia Beach, in an ultramodern, three-bedroom, waterfront house, and once in Charlottesville, in a 20-room mansion with a $4,000 Universal gym set in the basement and a panoramic view of the mountains. The place was country-club smart, and the tennis court and swimming pool and nine lush acres might have compelled an owner of less discriminating tastes to dig a sand trap, add a putting green and walk beneath the dreamy locusts hollering "Fore !"
"I have had much success," she said, "but it took a long time to get that. I heard these two women at a club in Dallas a few years ago, arguing with one another. One lady, who was probably about 38, said, 'Well, she's older than I am.' They kept talking like that. 'She looks old, she looks older than I am.' I just sat back with my mouth open. Thank you, thank you very much. I couldn't believe it."
Navratilova now is 28, and unutterably wealthy. In 1984, she won 12 consecutive tournaments, including the French Open, the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, her fifth such title. She also broke Chris Evert Lloyd's record of consecutive victories (55) at the Maybelline Tennis Classic. But money always has played a lesser role in her public image than have strength and power and invulnerability.
She has evolved, in the eyes of many, into a strong-armed automaton with a mean top spin forehand and serve-and-volley, and a tough, insensitive attitude that has wiped clean the memory of her emotional loss to Tracy Austin in the 1981 U.S. Open. Has the world forgotten that she wept violently at center court after dropping the third-set tie breaker?
It seems a conspiracy of public conscience has transformed her image from that of noble loser to steely-edged victor, and the world suddenly is down on her for being so damned good.
"I miss people thinking of me as being a little softer," she said. "A lot of people have been saying lately that I'm too businesslike on the court, which really tickles me. They criticized Borg when he was too quiet and Chris for being ice-like and me for being too emotional. And now I've calmed down and under control and I'm criticized for that. The main reason I find it difficult to joke around and laugh it up is because I'm beating people 99 percent of the time. And I wouldn't want somebody beating me and joking around about it.
"When I used to lose, it was easy to kid around and have a good time. When you're down, 5-2, you can lighten up because you're obviously going to lose. You can sit on the lineman's lap or whatever. But I've been very conscious of not rubbing it in my opponent's face when I'm winning because I know it would hurt. I would love to celebrate and jump around but that's not right."
She can, at times, be totally self-deprecating, quick to play down her enormous achievement. After defecting to this country from Czechoslovakia in 1975, she waited almost six years to become a U.S. citizen, doing so on July 19, 1981, in a federal ceremony that included 47 other naturalized citizens. She gave up the house and family at 108 Prazska St. in Prague, and embraced a nation that had first celebrated the courage of her commitment then slowly came to invade and injure her private life.
Later, most notably in matches against Evert, crowds were restrained, almost subdued, in voicing appreciation of her effort. At Wimbledon in June, after winning her third straight title, Navratilova drew almost joyless praise for her stunning performance. Some fans reacted to her extraordinary gifts with little kindness, contending she was a muscle-bound freak in white skirts and belonged on the court with men.
She told a gathering of journalists, "I'm only 145 pounds and 5 foot 7. There are plenty of girls bigger than me . . . I was gifted five or 10 years ago, but I didn't do anything with it. Nobody started complaining until I started winning."
Indeed. She grew to dominate the sport of women's tennis, and in so doing, reached a level of visibility that quickly proved to be uncomfortable. In 1982, she won 90 of 93 matches and became the all-time money leader among women. But what, she often asks herself, would have become of her name and good glory had she twisted a knee early on, or damaged a shoulder?
"I think the worst thing that could have happened, and the reason I finally got my behind in gear, was when I realized that there would some day be an end to my career and I wouldn't be playing forever and was wasting my talent right now," she said. "I didn't want to sit back, when it was all over at 40 or whenever, and say that I only wish I had worked harder. I didn't want that to happen, because there's no real excuse for it. That kind of attitude is for underachievers, and I was never one of them."
But even now, she said, she never "imagined in my wildest dreams the position I would come to hold in tennis, or who I would be. I look back on it all, on when I first decided to defect, and it seems so long ago. If someone would have told you at 16 where you would be at 28, most of us would say, 'No way.' And it was like that for me especially. You can dream, and I had a dream. But it's hard to tell yourself you're going to be the best at something when the whole world is trying to be that same thing, too."
Navratilova lost her first match of 1984 to Hana Mandlikova in the Virginia Slims of California, after going 86-1 the previous year and gaining a reputation as being virtually unbeatable. "I haven't lost very much," she said, "and then, when I lost against Hana, I was able to hold it in until the locker room and then I started crying. You don't want to break up, and you don't want to take anything away from her.
"It was her moment, and she deserved it. I think that's when I learned how much respect I have for the players. When my peers beat me, they don't go crazy with excitement. They don't stand up and start jumping and screaming and hollering. They're very happy but they don't rub it in. And I don't rub it in when I beat them.
"I think, though, that I do not really possess the aura of unbeatability," she said, "not like the Dallas Cowboys and other great sports teams used to have. I'll sometimes get where I'm down, 5-3, and it's the bottom of the set and match point and I have to pull out all the stops. You get that invincibility feeling about you; Chris had it for years. But you only get it by beating people all the time, you don't get it by talking."
The face of anonymity is one Navratilova probably will never wear again. Who can help but wonder at the degree of separateness she must know, trapped inside the picture that fans of her sport have designed for her sole occupancy? At the apogee of fame and fortune, she occasionally has dealt with a mild feeling of isolation, but has risen above such private struggles of the heart by "looking for the happy medium."
"Sometimes things get to me and I feel removed from everybody," she said, "apart from the whole human race, and I would rather not be. I think if I had my choice, I would give it all up. If I had the choice of being recognized and famous as I am, and not at all, I think I would rather not be at all.
"I still do sometimes come into an arena and someone will ask me for a ticket or a badge, for some form of identification. I just say, 'Forget it, get lost, get out of here.' What's strange to me is that I'll go to a country I've never been to before, or to a place like Hong Kong, for example, or to Indonesia as I did last year, and people will recognize me there, call me by my name.
"There isn't a terrible feeling of loneliness in that, but you do feel that you can't be yourself and you can't do what you want. It's hard to put the fine line between keeping your privacy and being with those who demand you give them yourself and your time. It's hard to come off as who you are because people have a certain image and want you to be that way. Who you really are sometimes matters very little to them."
Navratilova said she has finally reached a point where she can "walk away from it," and end her career, though she does not plan to. "If I had to, I wouldn't be regretting something and wishing I had done more," she said. "I've done it all, and I'm still not ready to quit. But I'm more and more ready, if that makes sense. Let's just say I'm closer to where I want to be."