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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: June 10, 2009

6/10/2009 12:00:00 AM

LaRosa's Sweet Spot Main Page

June 10, 2009

This week, Tennis Channel premiered its Signature Series: Martina Navratilova, a first-person documentary about the greatest female player of all time (Steffi Graf's words, not mine). It's an insanely watchable look at not only an amazing champion, but truly a pop culture icon.

Picture it. Paris. 2007.

I was lucky enough to bump into Martina two fateful French Opens ago (okay, I accosted her and gushed like a moron). I thought I'd meet a celebrity but who I walked away with (not literally, I did let go of her hand eventually) was someone who was not only instantly engageable, but who had an opinion about everything and was not afraid to share it.

It's not a trait that comes from vanity (though if someone could be forgiven a little vanity, it would be Martina, who's claimed so many trophies it would take Federer and Nadal a week to spit shine them). It comes from experience. Martina's lived a dozen lives, having to overcome a Communist stranglehold that led to her ultimate defection, being stranded in a new country with all the opportunity in the world and no one to share it with, creating the greatest rivalry in sports (my words, not Steffi's) with America's Sweetheart Chris Evert, and rebuilding herself from the ground up to ultimately become the living legend she is today. (I might just be feeding that vanity a little myself.)

Martina doesn't shy away from any of these subjects in the special. She also doesn't shy away from talking about what shoved her first and perhaps most violently into the mainstream media glare: her sexuality. I got a chance to catch up with Martina again, and we spoke about that time in her life.

JL: In 1981, there weren't a whole lot of people talking publicly about their sexuality. Suddenly you're in the headlines. How did that all come about, and how difficult was it for you?

Martina: [It was] the beginning of '81 when Billie Jean had that scandal with her ex-girlfriend. That all played out pretty nastily in the papers. She lost all her deals. The sponsors were pretty jumpy and I was told to keep quiet if at all possible about my sexuality so that it wouldn't scare [them] off. I said okay, I will try, but I make no promises. And that's when the reporter was asking me about my sexuality. I said look, I can't really talk about it, it would hurt the tour. It's not just about me. And I said, you're not going to write about this are you? He said no. The next day it's in the paper: "Martina Can't Discuss Her Sexuality Because It Would Hurt the Tour."

You didn't have the same hang-ups about your sexuality that Billie Jean had. She was married...

Martina: I didn't care for my sake. I never had a problem with being gay in the first place, and I never had a problem with it being public. I stayed quiet [initially] so I could get my citizenship. Which is why the guy called me after I got my citizenship. He says, well now you got your citizenship, now what? I'm like, I can't talk about it because of the sponsor issue. And that's when he blew the whistle. If it hadn't been for the sponsors I would've come out on my terms instead of talking to a reporter from a trash paper.

Did you lose any sponsors?

Martina: I didn't lose anybody, but I didn't get a lot. That's just when I really started coming on. This is '81, when I started working with Renee Richards. That's when I started winning everything. There were no sponsorships that were coming my way. I did not lose my racquet deal, which was great, but it was with a Japanese company. I think had it been an American company, I would’ve lost it. But the Japanese didn't really care. I think my clothing was a European company. Anyway, it wasn't American. Let's face it, Americans have much bigger hang-ups about sexuality than the Europeans or the Japanese. So I didn't lose any of my non-American deals. But there certainly were opportunities to get deals in the States that just didn't happen. Six months after I came out, I was #1 in the world. It hurt, yes of course. How much, I don't know. How do you put that into dollars and cents?

How did it play out in the locker room?

Martina: The tour itself was no problem, because everyone there knows who is gay and who isn't. [And] Chris has been great in her support.

After everything you've gone through, becoming almost the poster child for gay athletes, has anything changed?

Martina: I don't think you would lose [sponsorships] anymore, I really don't. If anything you might even get deals because of it because you have more visibility. It's not the cancer that it was, for lack of a better word. It can vault you into people's consciousness. But I don't think it's a minus. It may shift where you can go with your endorsements. But how many top players get endorsements? Outside of racquets, shoes and clothing, what's there? You can still play. Nobody can tell you no you can't. There's no coach that will yank you or not put you in the line-up because he's homophobic. In tennis, no one can keep you from competing. If you're good enough, you play.

And Martina was indeed good enough. Yet beyond the records she holds, beyond her place in the highest echelons of the sport, what I admire Martina for most of all is her guts off the court. It was my first impression of her when we met in Paris two years ago, and it's my impression of her today watching her Tennis Channel documentary. She tells it like it is, no matter what the cost. And that, my friends, is truly great.

Watch web exlusive clips from Signature Series: Martina Navratilova here.