WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND -- While everybody was looking for the next cover of the Wheat-ies box, Prague-born and Texas-saved Martina Navratilova just may have become that purest of hearts, a genuine American sports champion. At 33 years old, on a weakened left knee, she dreams in slang and plays tennis in her sleep, legs twitching and her arm flying around until somebody shakes her and she starts awake as she exclaims, "I won the point."
Complicated in nature, with a face drawn by two rulers that gets only more interesting as she goes on, Navratilova still is making statements. Ever since she left her patience and her family in Czechoslovakia in 1975, she alternately has confused and enlightened with her ability and lifestyle, and hardly ever gained acceptance for either. But when she won her ninth Wimbledon singles title Saturday, taking sole possession of the record she shared with Helen Wills Moody, she slipped over the wall into immortality and clarified everything for herself, with no asterisks or qualifications or doubts.
"If I get hurt or if I never win another tennis match, I'll retire a happy woman," she said. "There are no more buts."
Navratilova sat in a small house just yards from the All England Club one morning after her victory and at the end of a painstaking odyssey to rediscover her game and herself. She was so beset with doubt 14 months ago she considered retiring. The period since has been what friend and mentor Billie Jean King described as "an unbelievable emotional confrontation." Not the least of it was her shattering return to Prague in May, a visit that was triumphant, despairing, and finally conciliatory.
She fumbled with a jar of instant coffee while friend Judy Nelson made pasta, coach Craig Kardon milled around and Nelson's son, Bales, teased her affectionately. Then she closed a door and settled quietly at a table filled with a jumble of flowers and her Wimbledon trophy. A replica of the permanent one, it is about as big as a dessert plate. Unimpressive by itself perhaps, but breathtaking in the scope of all of them, won from 1978 to Saturday, when she defeated Zina Garrison, 6-4, 6-1, on Centre Court.
"My friends say I should go for a set of 12," Navratilova said.
Who has ever won nine of any one thing? Not Joe DiMaggio, not Joe Montana, not Jack Nicklaus. Maybe Notre Dame. As she toyed with it, certainly the greatest player in Wimbledon annals and probably the greatest woman player ever, all the elements of a remarkably divided athlete and life seemed resolved.
"I'm content that I did everything I wanted, and so much more," she said. "Because I wanted it so badly, I'd have felt my career wasn't complete. How much more I win can't change what I feel right now." Miss America
Navratilova is as American as you are, maybe more so. She likes Fred Astaire and Katherine Hepburn movies, art deco, kids, football, golf, Texas and Colorado. She hates taxes.
She has made a longtime home in Fort Worth, and plans to live the rest of her life in Aspen, where she owns a large tract of land, several horses, including one named Grand Slam, two cats and five dogs. She plans to stay in tennis at least through 1992, because one of her last ambitions is to play for the U.S. Olympic team.
She always has winced at the word defector, because it implies a sort of treason instead of a choice. Nor does it convey the satisfaction she felt on becoming a U.S. citizen in 1981. She regards herself as an immigrant, no less American than Jennifer Capriati, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, immigrants' children all.
"I'm more American than most people born there," she said. "People ask me, 'Where is your home?' I'm an American. Everybody is a transplant, whether first generation or tenth. I made it my home by choice. So I earned my Americanism. Financially, I'd have been better off in Monaco."
There are few remaining traces of exoticism in her looks or behavior. In street clothes she is surprisingly average, 5 feet 7 and trimly proportioned, just a size 8. "I'm smaller than they think," she said.
In conversations over the last couple of months she was alternately funny, aware, and frighteningly intelligent. Comments such as Margaret Court's, that she is not an appropriate role model for young tennis players, are brushed aside. She has a quick laugh and a generous streak reflected in a movie-star quality smile that seems to compose her features. She is an appallingly free spender, and a rank sentimentalist who weeps at television commercials.
"People still think I'm harder than I am," she said. "I'm a softie. I can also be a real bitch. But for the most part I'm a reasonable person."
She actually is quite striking -- photos rarely doing her justice, catching the shadows and planes and not the clean, straight lines and hazel, almond-shaped eyes. "I think I have a strong face I'm still growing into," she said. She apparently looks very much like her natural father. Her parents divorced when she was 3, and at 10 she changed her name from Subertova to that of her adoptive father, Navratil. At 23, she learned her natural father had committed suicide, leaving only a few vague memories and a lot of confusion.
"I'm told I'm a lot like him," she said. "But I don't know what that means."
She is a meticulous user of the dictionary. She is a member of the Sierra Club. She reads several newspapers and follows politics compulsively, an avowed liberal. "Politics is life," she said recently. "We all better be interested." She has a magnificent propensity for self-denial and procrastination. She is opinionated, relentlessly frank, self-congratulatory. She wears her every emotion in her eyes, mouth and the turn of her shoulders.
"I tell it like it is, like it or not," she said. "I'm honest. That's American, isn't it?" Mind Games
There is a saying about left-handers, that they hit away from their hearts. It seems a fair description of Navratilova's ruthless athleticism, an instinctive trajectory toward the net so deep-seated she can't remember her first volley. "I always did it," she said. "I just always did."
Her flaw is said to be her fragile psyche. She won 17 Grand Slam titles with her head who knows where, maybe on the score of a baseball game or flight of a sparrow. So the first thing King said when Navratilova turned to her plaintively 14 months ago was that if she was going to win a ninth Wimbledon and 18th Grand Slam title, her head had to catch up to her body.
"I always had that label that if I won it was because I was talented and if I lost it was because I choked," Navratilova said. "I don't know if I deserved it or not, but that's what we worked on, the head."
Navratilova's temperament perhaps results from her uncanny vision, both literally and generally. She sees everything while on the court, minor movements from the flick of a cigarette to a head peeping over a fence. She also sees a broad spectrum, lacking the dumb focus and tunnel vision of most multiple champions. That temperament unraveled when the field caught up to her in 1987, no longer the fastest or the strongest, surpassed physically and in the rankings by a teenager, Steffi Graf.
She was worn out, unhappy and beatable. After a series of demoralizing losses she called King, whose first advice was to turn off the phone, lock the door and take a week off. "I got a suntan on my stomach for the first time in 16 years," she said. Then King sat her down and told her a few incontrovertible truths.
"I told her that she had always been a physical champion, and if she wanted to win again she was going to have to get much tougher emotionally and mentally," King said.
They held head sessions in the kitchen, not all of them friendly. At the same time, Navratilova embarked on one of the most grim physical training regimens of her career. "When the doubts came I got on the bicycle and pedaled harder," she said. The effort culminated with a three-week session on grass courts in Hilton Head, S.C., five hours a day, Kardon and King fining her a dollar for every complaint.
"I was learning to confront," Navratilova said. "I'm a procrastinator when it comes to conflict. I confronted confronting. I used to keep things inside. Now I talk about them."
Whether Navratilova is stronger internally, only she knows. Anyone who has won 18 Grand Slam titles has a strong defense against the label of choking. Navratilova suggests that the tag may have come from her long rivalry with durable Chris Evert, who made her opponents pale in comparison. Navratilova's first Wimbledon title came over Evert in 1978, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5.
"Next to Chris, everyone looked less tough," Navratilova said.
Navratilova assuredly is a more complete, determined player than she has ever been. "She can coach now," King said. "A year ago she couldn't. The game is much clearer to her." She won a rain-interrupted Wimbledon tuneup in Eastbourne, England, with a telling performance that may have been harder than Wimbledon: In one day she won quarterfinal and semifinal singles matches and also a doubles match, seven sets of tennis with two tiebreakers that left her heaving and soaking in a bath.
It does not mean that Navratilova is any less prey to pressures. Against Garrison she won a bout with one of the worst cases of nerves she ever has experienced. The burden of winning rested squarely on her shoulders. As she sat panicking in the locker room before the final, Evert came in. Now retired and commentating for NBC-TV, Evert had a cluster of notes in her hand. Navratilova asked to see them. Evert had written that Navratilova should be a heavy favorite, but if the match became close, "she's been known to get tight under pressure." Navratilova nodded.
"I guess I was admitting it," Navratilova said. "I can talk about it; that's the difference. I was scared of losing, I was scared of everything. But I won it." Going Home Again
If Navratilova has confronted anything about herself it is a lingering sense of victimization. It struck her with a vengeance in May when she visited Prague, a city of ruined beauty and soaring spires, for the first time since the Communist regime fell.
"It was wrenching," she said. "I guess because it's a free country now you're allowed to feel more."
Navratilova grew up in Revnice, a dusty village of red tiled roofs a half-hour from the city. There is a ramshackle tennis club with a few beat-up wooden lockers, where just recently a poster of Navratilova sprang onto the wall, for years forbidden because of her status as a nonperson. Nearby there is a lone abandoned court surrounded by hanging tree limbs where she used to play with her adoptive father, when they weren't hunting mushrooms.
It was only her second visit since she left in 1975, her first coming as a member of the U.S. Federation Cup team in 1986, when she moved only within a smothering cordon of security. This time in Revnice they threw the block party to end all block parties, a family and neighborhood reunion. She visited her natural father's grave, and for the first time, that of her grandmother, who died when she was exiled in Dallas and unable to return for the funeral.
She caught a glimpse of Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel in a Prague restaurant. He saw her and waved her inside. He told her he read a black market copy of her autobiography; she told him he should quit smoking. Havel asked her to address an election rally for Civic Forum, where she was greeted by a wild throng that exploded into roars when she said, "It's nice to be a person again." She told Kardon and Judy Nelson, "That's the biggest rush I ever had."
Navratilova returned to Aspen ecstatic and in a spectacular fit of denial. A few days later she was stricken by a series of headaches and stomach heaves. Two doctors pronounced her physically fine. "Have you seen an analyst?" one asked. She went on a crying jag.
"Some real serious emotional things came up," she said. "A lot of baggage from Czechoslovakia. My parents. My grandmother's death. There was just a lot of sorrow, and it all came out. I cried my heart out. Now I can talk about it without crying. There's sadness, but there are good spirits too. It's not just despair."
There are some things Navratilova has perhaps not entirely come to terms with, such as how vast the lonesomeness was in 1976 after she defected, months of nagging injuries and no news from Czechoslovakia. When it was suggested during Wimbledon that her generation of players may have had fewer pressures than today's, she snapped: "I was totally alone. I mean alone. Cut off from my family, friends. If you want to call that easy, go ahead."
But overall there is a new balance in Navratilova that she gained even before Wimbledon. She calls it peace of mind. "I had to have that to win," she said. "The peace came from all the work I had done." There is a subtle shift of emphasis, her self-esteem results less from her won-lost record than it does from what went into it.
"In the past couple of years, when she felt so totally lost, it was like, just hold your breath and go out and hope," Nelson said. "This was a confidence that she could walk away proud, win or lose."
What Navratilova seeks now is a greater concert between her talent and her mentality, and perhaps a U.S. Open title in September that could give her the No. 1 ranking for the first time since '87. "I'd love to win in the U.S," she said. It is not inconceivable, nor is a 10th Wimbledon, since the All England Club is perhaps her most enduring, welcoming abode. "I know I have a place here," she said. At 33, her knees aching but her ambition refreshed, with no intention of quitting, she sat gazing at a little silver plate and tried to put words to the feeling of completeness.
"I always said I'd play tennis until I'm 30 and then I'd see," she said. "I'm still seeing."