Warning flags that the time might be approaching went up last September, when Martina won her first U.S. tournament, the Slims Orlando event, beating Rosie Casals, Fran�oise Durr and Julie Heldman. Then in Sydney, in December, Martina upset Court 6-4, 6-3 in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. To be sure, Court was just returning to competition after taking most of the year off to have her second child. But Court was still Court, and for Martina the match was a psychological milestone.
"In your tennis career," she says, "there are a couple of chances to be among the best or to be not so good. It depends on one or two matches in your life whether you are going to make it or not. It was really hard for me to beat Chris in Washington. If I had lost that tie breaker in the last set I could have been discouraged and maybe would not try as hard again. But maybe my real turning point was when I first beat Margaret Court. I was playing badly and I didn't feel like beating anyone. But, you see, Margaret Court and Billie Jean were my goddesses, from the first time I saw them on TV at Wimbledon when I was eight or nine. And here I was, playing Margaret Court."
Facing a goddess across a net might have paralyzed some young players, but the experience seems to have exhilarated Navratilova. "I wasn't afraid of her," she says. "I beat her in two sets."
"It will be interesting to see how Martina comes along now," said Court last week in Chicago. "It's around this age that you must move into the top three or four. This is the period when you'll see whether she can take the pressure, whether she keeps coming up for matches, whether she has good wind."
"If she really wants to be No. 1 she will be," says Billie Jean King. "Right now she's still erratic. It's just her age at this point. If she were really ready she'd have come back and beat Chris the next week, too. A true champion wins tournaments back to back. But she is capable of doing anything she wants."
Peachy Kellmeyer, the Virginia Slims tour director, says, "The question now is whether she can keep tennis the most important thing in her life."
Tennis did not become the most important thing in Navratilova's life until she was five years old. Her grandmother, Agnes Semanska, now 69, had been ranked No. 2 in Czechoslovakia before World War II, but Martina started out as a skier. The first years of her life were spent 5,000 feet up in the Krkonose Mountains, where she was bound into skis at 2�. In 1961, when she was five, the family moved down to Revnice, a town of 5,000 some 15 miles outside Prague. Navratilova does not admit to homesickness, but she speaks fondly of Revnice. "In the summer I go swimming to the river or hunting mushrooms in the hills, and in the winter I ski. It's really a lot of fun."
In Revnice Martina's father and her mother Jana concentrated on tennis, playing amateur tournaments in the summer months. "They were at the courts every day and they took me with them," says Martina. "I had an old racket that my father cut down and I hit the ball against a wall. I could do it for hours. They would make me stop and sit me on a chair but whenever they didn't watch me I would go to the wall again."
She played her first tournament when she was eight, and made the semifinals. "The officials didn't want me to play," she says. "They said I wasn't strong enough. But I beat some players five or six years older." At 14 she won her first national title in the 14-and-under division and two years later won the first of her three national women's championships as well as the national junior title, and in that order.
In the meantime she played soccer with boys and ice hockey in the winter and went to school like everybody else. "I was the third best student in my class but I never studied. By the time I was 15 and 16 I didn't have time to study anyway. I loved geography and I imagined myself in places like New York and Chicago. When I got a letter from my association telling me I might go to the United States for two months, I just couldn't believe it. Now I am spending as much time here as at home."