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Sarah Pileggi
May 24, 1982
Having rebuilt her life and her game, Martina Navratilova is playing the finest tennis of her sometimes turbulent career
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May 24, 1982

Merrily She Rolls Along

Having rebuilt her life and her game, Martina Navratilova is playing the finest tennis of her sometimes turbulent career

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Because of a story in the New York Daily News on July 30, 1981 that reported Martina, admitting for the first time that she was bisexual, she and Lieberman felt compelled to set the record straight about their own relationship. So they announced Martina's move to Dallas to the press of that city. They were friends, they said, one bisexual, the other straight, and they had decided to share Lieberman's house because it was financially and professionally convenient. Brown has made references, veiled and otherwise, to Martina's having left her for another woman, but Martina is through talking about the subject, at least for the time being. "I don't care what they say about me," she says. "But Nancy shouldn't have to suffer just for being my friend."

Fortunately, it takes more than a little gossip to get Lieberman down. As she told the Dallas Morning News, "I just want to help her, and if people think something else, that's their problem."

Lieberman has helped and so has Renee Richards. During last year's U.S. Open, she signed on as Martina's coach—the first real coach she has had since leaving Czechoslovakia in 1975. Under Richards' supervision Martina has overhauled her game, shot by shot, adding a topspin backhand to her slice, whipping her forehand volley into shape ("I was swinging at it like a ground stroke," she says) and changing her serve to make it more effective.

"I no longer take a step back when I hit it," she says. "And I jump into the ball rather than lean into it, which gives me better pace and better spin. I also stand closer to the sideline so I get a better angle, the way John McEnroe does. That took a while to get used to; not the serving closer to the sideline, because I do that in doubles, but getting back into the middle of the court when I come to net."

Richards is 47 now and no longer plays the circuit. Amply qualified to coach, she is especially well suited to Martina. Richards is a talented athlete, extremely intelligent and, like Martina, a powerful lefthanded player. In her earlier life, as Richard Raskind, she had been a highly ranked Eastern player, and in 1974 was No. 13 in the U.S. in the Men's 35s. Also like Martina, she has been through a lot. Finally, and perhaps most important, Richards, along with Lieberman, represents unqualified, unquestioning support. "Competing at a high level in an individual sport is extremely tough," says Sandra Haynie, the LPGA Hall of Fame golfer who shared a house in Dallas with Martina from 1976 to 1978 and who is often credited with having been the first stablizing influence in her young friend's then helter-skelter life. "You're totally by yourself. You have complete responsibility for success and failure, and that tends to make you feel lonely. Away from the court you want people; you want support."

"Certain parts of Martina have developed and others haven't," says Rosie Casals, a veteran touring pro. "She's very easily influenced, very impressionable, and I think she'll be that way forever. But she's very, very generous—probably too much so, because people take advantage of her. She doesn't ever see bad things about people. She'll refuse to see something that's so obvious everybody else sees it and points it out. She'll say, 'What are you talking about?' "

"Martina takes on other people's characteristics," says Evert Lloyd. "I don't know what that quality is. It's not being yourself, really. Maybe it's a searching. When I first got to know her she was lost, more or less. She was torn between going back to Czechoslovakia and wanting to be an American citizen. She was very much alone and very lost and very emotional. But we got along well."

In her soon-to-be-released autobiography, Chrissie, Evert Lloyd tells of a doubles match she and Martina lost to Casals and Frankie Durr in 1976. Durr had a dog named Topspin whose job it was to carry her racket off the court in his mouth at the end of a match. The mood was tense because Evert Lloyd had lost to Martina in the singles final. At the conclusion of the doubles match, Topspin, as usual, picked up the racket and trotted off behind Durr. In a moment of inspiration, Martina grabbed Evert Lloyd's racket, put it in her teeth, and walked off the court behind her. Evert Lloyd collapsed in laughter and the tension of the evening was dissipated.

"All the other women at that time—Margaret Court, Billie Jean—were pretty strong and independent and had their own lives," says Evert Lloyd. "Martina was a child in a strong body. I think she always felt uncomfortable inside her body. That was a time when we used to double-date, go out with guys, and she had a great time. She was really into it. She was dressing up and looking feminine and everything. But she was heavy, and maybe her self-image wasn't that good. Adolescence is tough for a girl athlete, especially one who is strong and muscular and not the American type."

"When I beat her in the semis of the '78 U.S. Open, she showed an awful lot of character," says Shriver. "I was 16 and basically nobody, and she had won Wimbledon two months earlier. I played a tough match and she didn't play that well. But what she said to the press was so classy, things like, 'People told me that Pam would choke, but she played it like a champion.' When a lot of players lose they say this was wrong or that was wrong, a call here, a call there. What Martina did that day impressed me."

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