MARTINA : Returning to Homeland, It Hits Her That She Now Is Truly an American

Times Staff Writer

Navratilova never regretted the August night in 1975 that she walked softly through dark, deserted hallways at the Immigration and Naturalization Service building in Manhattan and told FBI agents, face to face, she wanted to defect. To her, it remains her finest hour.

Martina Navratilova left this country. So did her sister. So did her cousin. So did her first tennis coach. So did a world champion Czech figure skater. So did 17 Czech hockey players, two of them in the last two weeks.

Navratilova’s grandparents had their 30-acre property appropriated by Communists in 1948. Twenty years later, 11-year-old Martina woke up one morning and was told not to go outside and play, because Soviet tanks were rolling across Czechoslovakia.

Her grandfather beat and browbeat her mother. Her parents divorced when she was 3. On the same day she found out how her real father had really died, Navratilova’s stepfather also told her that he would prefer her being a prostitute to sleeping with women.


She was 23 before anybody told her that she had a half brother. She has never met him. Her real father had had an illegitimate son before marrying Martina’s mother.

Later on, after the divorce, her father remarried, divorced again, fell in love with another woman, was hospitalized for a stomach ailment, then committed suicide in the hospital after the woman visited him there and told him she was in love with someone else. For 12 years, his daughter believed it was the stomach operation that killed him.

In England earlier this year, when Navratilova won the Wimbledon women’s singles title for the seventh time, her sister, Jana, came to see her play, as did her mother and stepfather. On the last night of June, Martina and Jana went to see “Antony and Cleopatra,” starring Vanessa Redgrave, at a London playhouse. At the moment Antony died, they began laughing because two rows behind them, somebody had started snoring.

The next day was their parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. There was a small celebration, and her dad cooked. Navratilova went right out and beat Bettina Bunge in straight sets. But a man asked if the presence of her family might become a distraction before the tournament was over.


“It doesn’t distract me, having them here,” Martina said. “I don’t think anything can distract me anymore. I’ve run the gamut.”

On a dazzlingly sunny, swelteringly horky (hot) July afternoon in Praha (Prague), birthplace of Martina Navratilova, her friend and foe Chris Evert Lloyd was asked what would be the first thing she would do or see--family and friends excluded--if she had not been permitted to set foot in her native land for nearly 11 years.

She said she would go to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., see her old school, and check out her old tennis court.

Baltimore-born Pam Shriver was asked the same thing. “Seafood,” she said. “Chesapeake seafood.”

But she realized the answer was frivolous, and gave the matter more thought. And more thought. Until finally Shriver said: “You know, I just can’t imagine it, being away for so long. I feel lucky, never having had to face anything like that.”

Regina Marsikova grew up with Navratilova. She knew her when she was still Martina Subertova. They were born in Prague two months apart. Marsikova still lives here, and for three years, from 1982-84, she could not leave the country for any reason because she was the driver in an automobile accident that left one person dead. She also served eight months in jail.

Now back on the women’s tennis tour, free to come and go, Marsikova was asked the question:What if she went away and was not allowed to come back? Refused permission to see the places and faces of her youth.

“Old Town,” she said. “The first place I would go is the Old Town part of Prague. It is so beautiful there, I cannot imagine never seeing it.”


To be gone from Czechoslovakia for good would be to miss 4,000 castles and historic ruins; 13th Century churches; skiing in the Krakonos (Giant) Mountains; the dramatic gauntlet of statuary on the Charles Bridge, where it crosses the Moldau River; the Bertramka, where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart worked on his operas, and the Tyl Theater, where Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” had its world premiere in 1787. Film Director Milos Forman directed “‘Amadeus” on these very locations.

There is also the astronomical clock--a description in more ways than one. It is one of Old Town’s most striking tourist attractions, an enormous, ornate, double-deckered timepiece bedecked with religious artifacts and emblems of centuries-old astronomy. “I just saw it,” Shriver said. “Incredible!”

Hana Mandlikova, native of Prague, heiress-apparent after Navratilova’s abrupt farewell, was given license to travel without restriction after Martina left, provided she never would do anything so drastic as to defect. For such a guarantee, Mandlikova could keep most of her winnings and stay away as long as she wanted, without interference--a deal Navratilova was unable to get.

Because she has been loyal to her homeland, Mandlikova, many people believe, spends much of her time in Czechoslovakia. The truth is, when she came here to play in the Federation Cup, the female equivalent of the Davis Cup, Mandlikova had been off her home courts nearly as long as Navratilova had.

“It’s funny,” she said. “Everybody asks me about Martina. I don’t know what to think. I don’t even know for sure how people will react to me. I haven’t played here for seven years myself.”

Mandlikova has a home in Boca West, Fla., and, like Czechoslovakia’s best male player, Ivan Lendl of Greenwich, Conn., is more a resident of the United States than of this country. But she did not turn her back on it, so she can return whenever she wants. And her successes, unlike Navratilova’s, are celebrated publicly here.

To the Czech Tennis Federation and press, Navratilova is more or less a non-person. No record of her achievements is featured in Czech literature.

Jaroslav Drobny, the 1954 Wimbledon champion, yes. Vera Sukova, 1962 Wimbledon runner-up, yes. Jan Kodes, 1973 Wimbledon champion, yes. Mandlikova and Lendl, 1986 Wimbledon runners-up, yes. But even Navratilova’s pre-defection feats, such as helping Czechoslovakia win the 1975 Federation Cup, are never mentioned.


Navratilova never regretted the August night in 1975 that she walked softly through dark, deserted hallways at the Immigration and Naturalization Service building in Manhattan and told FBI agents, face to face, she wanted to defect. To her, it remains her finest hour. But she has yearned to go home, nevertheless.

Several months ago, she tried. Navratilova applied for a visa to return to Czechoslovakia, “‘just to get over the shock of being away for 10 years.”

Her request was denied.

March 13 editions of USA Today bannered atop Page 1: “Czechs Tell Martina: ‘No Way.’ . . . The chief of the Passport and Visa Office at the Czech embassy in Washington was quoted as saying: ‘Navratilova? No way. She left Czechoslovakia without permission. There is no way for her to go back.’ ”

The scheduling of the Federation Cup in Prague brought up the matter once more, however. Surely, no one would tell the four-woman U.S. team who it could and could not bring. If they tried, the Americans simply would not come.

Said Mandlikova: “They’ll have to let her come back. She didn’t kill anybody. It would be dumb not to. It would be very embarrassing for the country.”

In April, Navratilova’s name was entered, along with Lloyd’s, Shriver’s, and Zina Garrison’s. The Czech official in Washington said he had meant to say: “No way she would get the visa on the spot. " In other words, it might take a little time. But it could happen, sure.

There was some concern because Jana Navratilova, 23, had just followed in her sister’s footsteps, defecting to West Germany. The matter was becoming delicate. But word finally came that Martina would be welcome. Maybe with open arms, maybe not. But welcome.

She was going home.

Not to Fort Worth, Tex., where she lives with Judy Nelson, a former beauty queen and mother of two children, but to Revnice, Czechoslovakia, where she picked blueberries and mushrooms with her stepfather on Brdy Mountain; where she pitched pennies with her best friend, Kveta Vlaskova, who lived over the butcher shop; where she swooned over the occasional Tracy-Hepburn movie on late-night TV, or walked into the living room to find her mother reading a book on the American Civil War.

Martina longed to go back. She understood the consequences of her actions. She meant no harm or trouble. She was just sick of being homesick.

At Wimbledon, she stated her case, certain that nothing would go wrong. “If I anticipated any trouble, I wouldn’t be going,” she said. “I think too many people have seen the movie ‘White Nights.’ Czechoslovakia is not Russia. I was not a criminal before or after I left.”

How she would be received, however, Martina Navratilova had no idea.

From “Martina,” by Martina Navratilova with George Vecsey, Alfred A. Knopf, publisher:

Page 68: “The propaganda is still the same today. Hana Mandlikova brought a Czech paper to the U.S. Open and I took a look at it. Such baloney. It made me glad all over again that I was out of there. That was the main reason I left. Forget the tennis: By 1975, I just couldn’t have lived with the propaganda much longer.”

Page 75: “The Czechs and Slovaks learned to swallow their feelings after (the Russian invasion of) 1968. We became a depressed society. You could see the difference: People just weren’t optimistic about the future. It was all pretty gloomy, and, from what I hear, it still is.”

Page 91: “Coming from Czechoslovakia, where people wear black and gray and look black and gray, I almost had to put on sunglasses when I landed in Fort Lauderdale.”

Page 117: “Since I moved to the States, I’ve discovered that some Czechs will form a network once they’re out, keep in touch with what’s going on back home. People try to get in touch with me because I’m Czech, but I don’t encourage it. I’m not political and neither is my family. I miss the countryside, some friends, my family, my dog, but that doesn’t automatically make me a life-long friend of every Czech and Slovak in the States.”

One of the reasons Navratilova moved out of Czechoslovakia was to speak her mind. You could say she has done so. She has been opening her mouth freely since first arriving in America, spending her first month stuffing it at McDonald’s and Baskin-Robbins so often that she swelled to 167 pounds.

Navratilova is intelligent, though not greatly educated, and candid, though rarely profound. She is a weeper, going on crying jags in her book about every 10th page, and a bit of a braggart, regularly quoting others about her improving looks and patting her own back for playing “the best tennis any woman ever played, which I think I have done in the past few years.”

True? Probably. But sometimes, Navratilova really pushes it. “I have to laugh sometimes when people suggest that I am superhuman and should be barred from playing the women’s tour,” she wrote.

What people?

Or: “I will still complain about calls when I think they’re wrong, even if the crowd doesn’t like it. Tennis is my livelihood.”

Yes, and you have made more than $10 million playing it, so lighten up, already.

Navratilova can be tough, on others and on herself. A gracious winner, she is also a lousy loser, probably because she has so little practice at it.

She cried after losing to Janet Newberry at the U.S. Open in 1976, cried after losing to Tracy Austin there in 1981, cried after losing to Steffi Graf two months ago in West Berlin. She cried when Shriver beat her in the 1982 U.S. Open.

Clearly, though, Navratilova enjoys the privilege of saying and doing as she pleases. Even back in the pre-Texas days when she boarded with financial adviser Fred Barman’s family in Beverly Hills, Navratilova was not exactly bashful. She drove a silver Mercedes 450SL with license plates that read: “X-CZECH.”

When she and author Rita Mae Brown lived together in Charlottesville, Va., it was in a 20-room mansion with a six-car garage.

When she and basketball player Nancy Lieberman lived together in Dallas, such a garage would have been too small. Martina owned seven cars, including a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and a $100,000 Rolls Corniche convertible.

In Revnice, Czechoslovakia, during her childhood, about one family in 25 owned a car. Until Martina bought her parents one, hers was not among the families who did.

“Martina Navratilova has suffered a defeat in the face of Czechoslovak society. Navratilova had all the possibilities in Czechoslovakia to develop her talent, but she preferred a professional career and a fat bank account.” So read the statement of the Czech Federation, August, 1975, two weeks after Martina decided never to go back.

At the brand new Stvanice Tennis Stadium, with its 7,000-seat auditorium in the back and statue of Jan Kodes out front, Navratilova, 29, strode onto the court alongside her American teammates, wearing a broach on her red sweater that read: “U.S.A.”

They were part of a parade of nations, representing 42 competing Federation Cup countries. Five years ago to the day, in a Los Angeles courtroom, Navratilova became a U.S. citizen.

This day’s newspapers had hardly mentioned her. The stadium shops sold souvenir photos of every top player, except her.

Hana Mandlikova’s coach, Betty Stove, said she understood. “Why should they promote something they don’t have?” she asked.

Helena Solanikova, an interpreter for Czech TV, said of her compatriots: “I think they are a combination of curious and happy. But they are waiting for her reaction first, before showing theirs.”

The audience did not need a picture to know who she was. Martina was home at last. No one received more applause. Cameras clicked. Blonder, thinner, yes, but it was definitely Martina. Good cheer was in the air. The joy of Czechs.

Mandlikova made a speech. She spoke in Czech except to welcome, in English, “the two best players inthe world,” Navratilova and Lloyd. The Czech anthem was played. Martina sang. She cried.

The day before, she went back to Revnice for the first time. She strolled the village square, looking in windows, drawing stares. The Giant Mountains dwarfed the town. Somewhere up there was Krakanosh, the jolly green-hatted giant of Czech folklore, as well as the ski lodge Martinovka, where both Martina and her name were conceived.

The night before the stadium ceremony, she ate and slept in her parents’ house.

“Martina cried a little last night,” said Jana Navratilova, her mother. Of course she did.

That very same day, unknown to those curious only about Navratilova, Hana Mandlikova was tip-toeing through an empty lot in Prague that used to be her house. Two or three years ago, she wasn’t sure which, it was leveled. She had lived there most of her life.

There were tears in her eyes, too.

It is difficult to leave Czechoslovakia. Either your heart strings are tugging at you or a soldier is.

Entering Prague last week, an American tourist was detained while customs officials removed a video cassette from his satchel and took it to a back room to examine it. When he was leaving Prague, a soldier fished into his bag and removed two packs of cigarettes before permitting him to pass.

Czech border guards slide long mirrors under automobiles and search trunks. Navratilova used to wake up perspiring from nightmares in which the terror was her inability to find her own passport.

Tired of all the rules, she defected. So did her sister, a tennis player who also is studying dentistry in West Germany, just in case.

So did her cousin, Martin, who settled in Canada.

So did her first coach, George Parma, who moved to Austria and later California.

So did the champion figure skater, Aja Zanova, who opened a restaurant in New York.

So did 17 hockey players, including two who recently signed with the Minnesota North Stars and Washington Capitals.

None of these people, to Navratilova’s knowledge, has ever returned. Some never will. But she did.

The president of the Czech Tennis Federation, Cyril Suk, said it is “quite normal” for Navratilova to be here, since the Federation Cup wanted the best possible field. That was about all he said.

The president of the International Tennis Federation, Philippe Chatrier, said that Martina’s presence “certainly contributed a great interest to the tournament,” and said he was pleased with her reception.

Mandlikova said she knew people “would not be so stupid” as to not welcome Navratilova back.

Martina? She watched what she said. She encouraged reporters to talk to her teammates, since this was the Federation Cup, as if they had come to Prague to hear comments on matches against 309th-ranked players from China or 14-year-old girls from Spain.

Martina. They came to see the homecoming of the woman who went off to play “the best tennis any woman ever played.”

And she knew it. It was a special occasion. “It really hit you here, more than anywhere else, the fact that I’m an American now,” she said. Some things do not hit you where you live.

“Will you be staying at all after the tournament ends Sunday?” she was asked.

“No. I go home the next morning,” Navratilova said.

Hana Mandlikova will be moving on, too. But first, she had something to do. On Friday morning, on what she described as the spur of the moment, Mandlikova and a young man named Jan Sedlak, a Czech who moved to Australia in 1968, walked into Prague City Hall and got married.

Mandlikova will come back someday, to see where the wedding took place, to see where the tennis took place, to step through the rubble where her home once stood, whatever and whenever she wants.

Martina Navratilova?

She will cry if she can. She will cry if she can’t.