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For the first time in nearly a dozen years the lady had come back home. The countryside where she grew up was vibrantly green, the precious gardens in every yard bountiful, the fruit trees ripe. Even in the old street by the tennis club in Revnice, Queen Anne's lace sprang up through the cracks in the pavement, and in the fields near the family house the mushrooms grew everywhere. It was a glorious time to return. "But it is not a good year for blueberries," the lady said.
Perhaps. No matter how fine it is to go home, something should remain forever unsurpassed—especially if you may never go back again. So at least the blueberries must have been better when Martina Navratilova was a child and a Czech, and when Prague, 27 kilometers away, was Oz.
In the part of Texas where the lady now lives—which calls itself (God knows why) the Metroplex—Prague would be merely larger than a mall and smaller than the airport. But the capital of Czechoslovakia has resolve and grandeur, and it is as patient as its dark beauty is ancient. The people queue for a half hour for ice cream cones, and while St. Wenceslas, the city's patron, once promised to pop back if things ever got really sticky, neither religious atrocity nor foreign occupation, neither the jackboots of the Nazis nor the tanks of Moscow have been enough to summon his return. "Don't bother asking for Wenceslas yet," the Czechs say, "for things are bound to get worse."
So this summer, for just a moment's time, Martina reappeared instead. No saint, for sure, but every inch a symbol. Her name, Navratilova, even means "she who returns." And so she did, although as her time passed in Czechoslovakia, Navratilova came more to mean she who represents hope and then, at the last, she who triumphs.
In the Federation Cup, the piece of business that brought Navratilova back to her native land, she led the U.S. to the championship, beating the bride of two days, Hana Mandlikova, as the U.S. shut out Czechoslovakia 3-0 in Sunday's finals. But the outcome of the cup matches was not nearly as important as how the crowd—and how the state—reacted to the lady from Revnice, especially when she squared off for America against the land of her birth under a big sign that proclaimed SPORT HELPS PEACEFUL UNDERSTANDING AMONG NATIONS.
Forty-one nations from all parts of the world competed in the Federation Cup. It was—save the Olympic Games of Moscow and Sarajevo—the most consequential athletic event ever conducted in a communist nation. Every notable female tennis competitor was on hand. They included not only the home-team stars, Mandlikova and Helena Sukova, who were the defending champs, but also, as the major party daily dutifully reported, such visitors as Grafova, Sabatiniova, Turnbullova, Temesvariova, Shriverova and Evertovalloydova.
Czech government officials were never under any illusions. If they were to win a bid for the Federation Cup, they would have to issue a visa to the lady who left home so rudely in September '75. The admission of the prodigal was part of a natural continuum. Three years ago, movie director Milos Forman, who had left Czechoslovakia in 1969, was allowed to shoot Amadeus in Prague, and for some time now Navratilova's parents have been permitted to visit Martina in Texas almost at will. This year's women's final at Wimbledon, between the good queen, Mandlikova, and the bad queen, Navratilova, was shown on state television. It was the first time Martina had appeared on TV in Czechoslovakia since her defection.
By contrast, the Wimbledon men's final between Czech citizen Ivan Lend! and West Germany's Boris Becker was not shown on Czech TV. Lendl, you see, has become persona non grata with the party for his refusal to come back from Connecticut—where he resides in a mansion with guard dogs while awaiting his green card—to play for Czechoslovakia in the Davis Cup. So his de-existence has begun. Indeed, in the streets and beer bars of Prague, the most curious rumor persists: Lendl has married into the family of Richard Nixon, who is synonymous with communist bashing.
Navratilova's stock with party officials has risen but a smidgen in the 11 years she has been gone. At the famous Prague tennis club, Sparta, all vestiges of her existence have been removed. On those rare occasions when she is admitted to the Czech public consciousness, as in the Wimbledon telecast, any reference to her past is omitted. In her debut at the Federation Cup last week, a first-round match against China, she was shunted to the grandstand court, which seats 800 people. Meanwhile, inside the magnificent new stadium, a match between the Soviet Union and Bulgaria was played. The Central Court holds 7,500, and possibly 20% of the seats were taken. Those few on hand rooted lustily against the Soviets.
On the tiny grandstand court the overflow crowd stood three-and four-deep, climbing upon chairs, ladders and television platforms to catch a glimpse of Martina. Others looked back on her from the stadium across the way. On the elevated railroad tracks that run behind the courts, an engineer kept running his train back and forth in order to watch the historic proceedings. The umpire became so discombobulated by all the fuss that after the first game he said, "Game, Navratilova." Cheers. "Excuse me. Game, United States." Titters. In the middle of the match, Martina—who never wins the crowd in her adopted country—couldn't help but turn to Evert Lloyd in the stands and say, "I want to play you here."