For Martina Navratilova, the homecoming was not at all the way she had imagined, but it was like something out of a dream. She had fantasized about coming home unnoticed. Instead, she came home a hero.
On a cool, cloudy afternoon 11 years after she defected from Czechoslovakia, she walked out of a tunnel into a Czech tennis stadium as a U.S. citizen and heard the rhythmic clapping that had greeted the first 38 Federation Cup teams suddenly change to warm, enthusiastic welcome home applause.
There were about 4,000 people in the spanking new Stvanice Stadium and when they saw her, leading U.S. teammates Chris Evert Lloyd and Zina Garrison into the stadium during this afternoon's opening ceremonies, their reaction was immediate.
"It was nice to hear," Navratilova said. "I really didn't know what to expect. But it showed that the people here remember me and still like me. It's a nice feeling."
This was a day full of feelings for Navratilova, most of them gratifying. It was exactly five years ago today that she took the oath of U.S. citizenship. And yet, she admitted, it was when she heard the Czech National Anthem that she couldn't hold back her tears any longer.
"That was what really got to me," she said. "I mean, I know the words to that anthem by heart. I can't deny what I came from -- this is my homeland. The States is my home. I'm an American now."
Navratilova looked nervous when she walked in wearing a red, cable-knit sweater, a white skirt, red shoes and -- like her teammates -- a glittering red, white and blue USA pin. As the teams marched into position, she squared her shoulders a couple of times, taking deep breaths. She smiled at the applause but did not wave to the crowd.
"I didn't want to make a spectacle of it," she said. "I didn't want to react too much to anything. I didn't think all the attention should be focused just on one person."
But of course it was. Around this stadium are numerous plaques listing the achievements in major championships of Czech tennis players. Navratilova appears on a plaque celebrating the 1975 Federation Cup team. After that, she disappears.
But today, the camera from the Czech television network followed her every move. So did everyone else. And, when Hana Mandlikova officially welcomed the athletes to this eight-day affair, she made it clear that Navratilova is a welcome guest. "I would also like to welcome the No. 1 and 2 women tennis players in the world," Mandlikova said, "Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd."
Evert put her arms around Navratilova's shoulders to steady her. A few moments later, when they marched out, the applause began again just as Navratilova began her exit. Only as she circled the stadium that last time did she feel comfortable enough to look into the stands and wave.
"When I flew in yesterday I kept having to pinch myself and ask was this a dream or was this real," she said. "One thing I always wanted to do was come back here unannounced. Just fly into the airport, take the train to my hometown and walk in and surprise my parents. I always pictured the dog would run up to me barking and I would be home.
"Well, the dog died last year. My parents don't live in the same house. And I didn't exactly surprise my parents. But that was all fantasy. This was real."
She laughed, able to laugh now because the apprehension she must have felt was past. Her arrival Saturday was a mob scene at the airport, but calmed down by the time she drove the 40 minutes to her parents' house in Revnice.
"Before I could even go inside the house my father walked me all around the garden, showing me everything he had planted," she said. "He was quite proud. It's funny. My parents wanted to show me all the new things, all the new buildings. I wanted to see old things, things that I remember.
"Driving around there were times that 11 years felt like a lifetime and other times it felt as if I had left here just yesterday. Some things were still so familiar. Actually, the weirdest thing was ordering room service in Czech. It's been so long. I kept wanting to talk in English because I couldn't believe they understood me when I was speaking in Czech."
This morning, Navratilova went to her old club here, Club Sparta, to practice with her coach, Mike Estep. A crowd of perhaps 500 people stood four deep around court No. 1, her old practice court, and watched.
"That's what I was apprehensive about," she said. "My tennis. . . . When I walked out there this morning, I was petrified."
Her feelings clearly have changed almost from minute to minute since she arrived. She remembers old faces but notices the changes that are inevitable after 11 years. She is thrilled to be home with her parents yet would like to walk or bicycle around her hometown alone.
"I'd like to go back to my old school and see some of my old teachers," she said. "I can remember sitting in the school looking out the window across the street to the tennis club and wishing that I was over there playing. I've learned a lot of things since then."
What she learned today was what she had suspected all along: most of the Czech people admire her.
"I tried not to expect anything," Navratilova said. "I didn't want to have high hopes. The fact that I was finally coming home didn't really hit me until this week."
The U.S. team will play its first match Tuesday against China and there is the possibility of a final Sunday against the three-time defending champion: Czechoslovakia.
All this is a long way from the days when Navratilova was allowed no contact with her parents, was denied a visa the first time she tried to visit, when her name never was mentioned by the official Czech press.
"I think things have really opened up here in the last few years," she said. "They showed the Wimbledon final on TV here the first time Czech television has shown a Navratilova match since her defection and since I got here people have been unbelievably nice -- almost too nice.
"I think everyone wants me to enjoy it. And come back again."