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Jumping Into Retirement : Martina Navratilova Will Go Out at the End of the Year Still Near the Top of the Hill, but It Has Been Quite a Climb

TIMES STAFF WRITER

We are at 35,000 feet above the Rocky Mountains and Martina Navratilova says what she really wants to do is jump out of an aircraft. This is not what you expect to hear, so you quickly look around to check where the cabin doors are.

Martina does not stir in her black, lace-up boots. She sits calmly in her seat, expertly peeling a mango. Her miniature fox terrier, known as K.D. (Killer Dog) and possibly the most disagreeable canine in tennis, rests at her side under a small cloud of a pillow.

As it turns out, the craft from which Martina says she wants to jump is a helicopter.

“I have no plans for next year,” she says, “except helicopter skiing.”

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This activity features a person in skis jumping out of a helicopter at the top of a mountain and skiing down very fast. It is regarded as fun by many, including a 37-year-old would-be helicopter skier named Navratilova, who is also the greatest women’s tennis player of all time. Watch that first step.

It seems pretty clear that at this point in her life, Navratilova’s focus has shifted to what will be her last step.

The end is in sight already for Navratilova, whose 22-year career in tennis will end when she hits her last ball in her last match in her last tournament in November at Madison Square Garden in the Virginia Slims Championships.

Until then, we have the Martina Farewell Tour, a yearlong event that so far has included unexpected success on the grass courts of Wimbledon and next week will feature her last tournament in Los Angeles, this one to be played out on the green-painted hard courts of the Manhattan Country Club in the Virginia Slims of L.A.

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For the woman who has won more tennis tournaments than anyone, who has 18 Grand Slam singles titles, who has won nearly $20 million in prize money, who has won at least two tournaments a year for the last 19 years, who has been ranked in the top five for the last 20 years . . . well, let’s simply say that after 22 years of tennis, helicopter skiing is looking pretty good right now.

And how will women’s tennis fare in the post-Navratilova era? If a 37-year-old Navratilova can be ranked No. 4 and still make the final at Wimbledon, that indicates her departure might create a void as big as Centre Court. She’s not going to change her mind, by the way, and stay.

“I think it’s the right time for me to leave,” Navratilova says. “If it’s not the right time for the game, then I say tough luck. I gave it about 10 more years than it had the right to expect.

“I don’t feel like I would be contributing much anyway next year because my heart’s not in it. I wouldn’t be doing anybody any good.”

So here’s the plan.

She is playing six or seven more tournaments, but maybe not the U.S. Open, to which she isn’t committed yet, but certainly the Virginia Slims Championships. That’s it for tennis.

Then, by December, Navratilova’s house will finally be completed on her 100-acre spread in Aspen, Colo. She can move out of the barn in which she is staying now and return sole custody of it to her three horses.

When she gets to her bedroom, she can pick up her jewelry pouch from the dresser and pull out the plug of grass she removed from Centre Court on her final visit, right after she lost to Conchita Martinez four weeks ago.

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Then in January, it’s off to Canada and that skiing trip with the airborne ski lift. After that, who knows? At the very least, Navratilova has a lot to think about, if she ever feels comfortable doing it.

“The years all start running together,” she says. “I can’t remember what year . . . I remember the decade, I can’t remember the year. That just means that I’ve been playing a long time. It’s all a blink when you think about it, the last 20 years.

“Friends say, ‘Oh, don’t retire, don’t retire,’ and you know I’m not retiring, I’m just not going to play tennis. I’m going to have a blast.”

But for now, the blast is going to have to wait.

TELL US, MARTINA, IS IT NOISY IN BOISE?

The day before Navratilova and her New Jersey Stars teammates show up in Boise, Ida., to play a TeamTennis match, Rick and Jon Leach of the Idaho Sneakers go kayaking on the Payette River.

“It was cool,” Jon Leach says.

Maybe, but as experiences go, it can’t compare with Rick Leach’s when he asks for one of Navratilova’s rackets after the match and she gives him one.

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“It’s going in the trophy case,” he says.

Navratilova has a contract to play one more year of World TeamTennis, a struggling, monthlong exhibition series featuring mostly minor players in mostly minor cities. The highest-ranking men’s player is San Antonio’s Christo van Rensburg, who is No. 147 on the ATP Tour.

In these bush leagues, Navratilova is unquestionably the star. She is introduced by the public-address announcer as “the greatest lady in tennis,” and the nearly 3,000 in the stands seem to agree. Hundreds form lines at the exits after the match hoping for an autograph while Navratilova holds an impromptu news conference on court.

Somebody asks about her greatest rivalry.

Easy question.

*

Chris Evert is 39 and has two young sons. She also lives in Aspen, not too far from Navratilova, which probably isn’t that surprising because their proximity to one another was the major story line of women’s tennis for 16 years, 1973-88.

They played 80 matches, 189 sets and 12 tiebreakers. Navratilova held a 43-37 advantage and won 13 consecutive times in a span of nearly three years from 1982 to ’85. If anyone fully appreciates how dominant Navratilova was in that period, it is Evert.

“She won the match before I stepped on the court,” Evert says. “I knew I couldn’t win. Mentally, she had already won. And I was No. 2 in the world . . . imagine what she was doing to the other players. She was invincible.”

Navratilova can’t recall what invincibility felt like.

“It’s so long ago, I don’t remember,” she says. “But I knew I was going to win. That takes a lot of pressure off. I knew even if I didn’t play my average, I would still win. I could do that even against the top players. I was playing so well, my average was that much better than anybody else. It’s like you forget how to lose.”

Navratilova was 89-14 in 1981, 90-3 in 1982, 86-1 in 1983 and 78-2 in 1984, the year her 74-match winning streak finally ended with a loss to Helena Sukova that December in the semifinals of the Australian Open. She won 15 tournaments in 1982, 16 in 1983 and 13 in 1984 on her way to a record 167 titles.

Evert was not surprised by Navratilova’s Wimbledon farewell, not after Steffi Graf was defeated in the first round. And even though Navratilova’s quest for a 10th Wimbledon singles title fell short, Evert is not convinced it was all that bad a thing.

“I think that was the signal, ‘Martina, it’s time to stop,’ ” says Evert, who retired in 1989. “If she had won, in her mind, she might have made the wrong decision about not playing. Let’s face it, you always want to go out on top, but (John) McEnroe, myself, Jimmy (Connors), Billie Jean (King), we all didn’t do it.

“So losing at Wimbledon was a blessing in disguise for Martina. I think she’s more comfortable now with her retirement. Billie Jean was playing on and losing to people she shouldn’t have and she didn’t care. But Martina, she’s going out on top, and that’s important to a player.”

Navratilova and Evert have grown closer over the years, but there was a time when they probably would have preferred to jam a racket down the other’s throat. They didn’t have much to do with one another, except on court. It was the women’s tennis answer to Bjorn Borg-McEnroe as tennis shot to greater popularity, fueled by the spectacle of rivalries.

“People love rivalries,” Navratilova says. “You’ve got to have rivalries, and we certainly had it going. Most of the times, one of us was No. 1 and the other was No. 2. It’s hard to have a rivalry between No. 1 and No. 10 or No. 3 and No. 8 or whatever.”

Navratilova says the reason she didn’t get along with Evert was because she was being coached that way.

Nancy Lieberman, who had been a noted college basketball player at Old Dominion, began working with Navratilova to toughen her mental approach and to strengthen her body.

“There were a couple of years when I was beating Chris and Nancy was sort of saying, ‘You’ve got to hate your opponents,’ ” Navratilova says. “So I got a little bit carried away with the killer instinct.”

Evert says the first match that Lieberman saw Navratilova play was in Amelia Island, Fla., in 1981, the final of the Women’s International Tennis Assn. championships. Evert won, 6-0, 6-0. At that point in the series, Evert had won 27 of the first 40 matches against Navratilova. After that match, Navratilova won 30 of the next 40.

“That was the turning point,” Evert says. “I did her a favor beating her, 6-0, 6-0. Nancy was asking her how humiliating it was and that was the beginning of the new Martina, the whole physical edge.”

Lieberman, now Lieberman-Cline, lives in Dallas with her husband and newborn son. She has a successful career as a television commentator for basketball games and runs a sports marketing company. She also has a softer definition of the killer instinct she instilled in Navratilova, with whom she was affiliated in the early 1980s.

“I just made her more competitive,” Lieberman-Cline says. “For a time, she needed to go totally opposite to what she was because she was so passive. Mentally, she was competitive, but she had a lot of feeling for the people she was playing.

“The example was Chris--so mentally strong and dominating. Martina went out there to play tennis, and Chris went out there for war. In 1981, Martina needed to be pushed.”

How a person is perceived is not in the control of that person. Navratilova is well aware of this truth, but she believes she is being perceived quite differently than in years past. She also believes how she is viewed relative to Evert is not as it once was.

“I think the perception of the All-American woman has changed over the years,” Navratilova says. “Chris was the epitome of it in the 1960s and ‘70s, but in the ‘80s it started changing. Sure, she’s still the same great person, but it’s more accepted to be outspoken, to be a feminist, to have a muscular body, and your goal in life is not to be a housewife anymore--it’s to do something with your life--and I fit that mold a lot more than Chris does.

“Had I been born 20 years later, I would have been accepted much more than I have. I’ve stayed the same, but they have accepted me because attitudes have changed.”

THE FANS LINE UP IN SAN ANTONIO ROWS

It takes a phalanx of five security guards to get Navratilova into the changing room at McFarlin Tennis Center in San Antonio after another World TeamTennis match. Navratilova looks weary from all the attention at the scene, which is a far cry from the team’s afternoon practice when only a few braved the broiling sun for a glimpse of her.

Navratilova is discussing “Forrest Gump,” a film she saw the night before.

“It doesn’t let smart people off the hook,” she says. “If so-called stupid people can perform heroic acts, what does that mean smart people can do?”

The dream of many tennis fans in San Antonio is to get Navratilova’s autograph. Some lucky ones get their visors or shirts or programs or pictures signed, but many don’t.

Brad Williams also feels fortunate, but for a different reason. Williams is a reporter for the Texas Triangle, a biweekly gay and lesbian publication in Austin. Navratilova has agreed to give him an interview.

“I’m 27 and I have been aware of the Martina phenomenon since I was 8,” Williams says. “She’s been a role model my whole life, even before I knew what gay was or that I was gay. A lot of people see her as a major leader in the movement after her retirement. . . . How could she not be?”

*

Anyone familiar with interviewing Navratilova knows well that she is one of the most quotable athletes around. It seems she has an opinion on almost everything and is perfectly capable of expressing it.

But it has been something of a recent event that Navratilova has been so outspoken about gay issues, dating to the 1992 Colorado anti-gay constitutional amendment. Navratilova also caused a stir after Magic Johnson announced that he had HIV when she said if a woman had made the same admission, she would have been branded as a slut.

Navratilova is an extremely popular figure among gays, partly because she is so visible.

She is going to be even more outspoken in her retirement.

“I’ll be an active activist,” she says. “The environment, gay rights, which is equal rights. I want the right to adopt a baby, fight for my country, teach in school and not be fired because I’m gay, want the right to be married. Gay rights are huge because we don’t have any.”

Navratilova’s relationships with Rita Mae Brown and Judy Nelson ended badly--Nelson sued Navratilova and reached a multimillion-dollar out-of-court settlement. Navratilova’s new companion is Danda Jaroljmek, who was among Navratilova’s many friends staying with her at a rented house in Wimbledon to see the last walk on Centre Court.

As the Martina Farewell Tour moves on toward its inevitable conclusion, the chances to see Navratilova play grow fewer and the anticipated reception for her becomes larger. So far, it has been somewhere between amused novelty and unbridled hysteria. As usual, Navratilova manages to provoke a reaction, and this time, it has been mostly good.

“I find it surprising, the level of support I’ve been getting, particularly because I’m gay,” she says. “That’s kept a lot of people from accepting me for a long time, but most of them have gotten over it.

“I still get introduced here and there and I hear jeers and boos from two or three people. Chris never had to hear that. I used to have a lot more of it, obviously. I still hear it and it hurts. To think that something like that would define somebody’s perception of you as a human being is pretty scary.”

THE LONG GOODBY

It’s going to take about 11 months for Navratilova to leave, which amounts to one month for every two years she has played on the professional tour. Navratilova has lasted long enough to win 167 tournaments and that averages out to more than seven a year for her 22 years.

A left-hander and one of the last serve-and-volley specialists in the women’s game, Navratilova was born on Oct. 18, 1956 in Prague, in the former Czechoslovakia, and grew up in Revnice. She defected to the United States in 1975 and became a naturalized citizen in 1981.

She won her first Grand Slam singles title in 1978 at Wimbledon when she defeated Evert. Her last one was four years ago, also at Wimbledon, when she defeated Zina Garrison-Jackson in the final.

Navratilova’s 1990 Wimbledon title, the ninth she earned on the court inside the ivy-covered brick walls on Church Road, might be directly attributed to the influence of her mentor, King, and her coach, Craig Kardon. King and Kardon rescued Navratilova from so-called burnout in 1989 and turned her around.

Kardon says he never believed he would have coached Navratilova for six years.

“Six months, I would have believed that,” he says.

Now there are only six months left coaching Navratilova.

“It’s difficult for me because I don’t know how tough to be on her since she’s going to be stopping,” Kardon says. “It’s been a real roller coaster. That makes what happened at Wimbledon so unbelievable. She was losing so many bad matches on clay, I didn’t know if she was even going to make it to Wimbledon after losing in the first round of the French Open.”

Through a spokesperson, King says she will not talk about Navratilova. King says she would be interviewed only about TeamTennis.

As Navratilova’s doubles partner for most of the 1980s, Pam Shriver knew Navratilova as a player and a person as well as anyone. Shriver doesn’t expect to see anyone like Navratilova again.

“She’s an original, she’s unique, she’s a legend--who do you replace her with?” Shriver says. “Compared to anyone else, Martina kind of stands out even more glaringly.”

Together they won 109 consecutive doubles matches and eight consecutive Grand Slam titles. How such a successful union could be formed from such a liberal as Navratilova and a staunch Republican as Shriver, who played tennis with George Bush when he was in office, well, it seems hard to imagine.

Navratilova offers an explanation.

“Pam played the right side and I played the left side,” Navratilova says. “But it seemed that (one of us) always played the middle. The Republicans and Democrats could learn from that.”

Until the tour ends, we can reflect on what we have learned from Navratilova. Part of it is great tennis--overpowering, dominating, flamboyant tennis. Another part is the opportunity to view a work in progress of a person, a study in freedom of expression and lifestyle.

So the tour goes on and Navratilova promises to try to keep her mind on her business.

“I haven’t been swept up in the emotion yet, except maybe in the beginning, but it’s going to be hard not to get caught up in it at the end,” she says. “For now, I still have to play. I have to detach myself. I can get caught up in it when it’s over.”

And it will be over all too soon. When it is, someone will start writing Navratilova’s legacy for her. Actually, she has her own walk-away line.

“I served and volleyed my way through life,” she says.

Warm up the helicopter and prepare those skis. Life Phase II is not that far off. The first phase has gone better than anyone could have dreamed.


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