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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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One of the first people Martina impressed was a little old lady the players called Madame Kozelska. She lived in a tiny apartment just off the courts at Klamovka, the ancient, drafty hall that housed the only indoor courts in Prague when Martina began playing there in 1965. Madame Kozelska earned her keep looking after the locker rooms at Klamovka, cleaning up every day after the players were gone. And, of course, she knew everything that was going on.

"She was like a little scuttle bug," recalls Martina. "She knew who were the bad kids and who were the good kids and who was charging what for lessons and who was a good coach. She saw me play when I was nine, and she knew I was talented, so she told George Parma about me." Parma had been ranked No. 2 in Czechoslovakia, and when a chronic bad back ended his playing career at age 29, he did what most retired Czech tennis players do—he became a coach. Parma had a slice backhand and an excellent forehand, both of which he passed on to Martina, but she thinks her style of play was in her genes.

"I was eight years old and I had to come to the net," says Martina. "My [step]father would say, 'That's fine, but now let's practice your ground strokes.' When I was at net and someone tried to pass me, I would dive for the ball, literally. The little girls would hit lobs, and I'd run back for them and then run right back to the net again. Some kids you couldn't pull to the net with a crowbar."

At first Martina was exceptionally small for her age, second shortest in a class of 30 in the third grade, but in the eighth grade she shot up. "People said I would stunt my growth from playing so much tennis," she recalls. "My mother made me little bitty blue shorts, and we wore physical-education T shirts with V necks and canvas shoes. My [step]father would yell at me something awful, but he never beat me up like some of the others. I've seen some fathers who beat up their children just for losing."

Revnice (pronounced zhevneetza), the little town 15 miles southwest of Prague where Martina grew up, is surrounded by forests and mountains, and she learned to ski before she took up tennis. "My [step] father had a motorcycle, and when it snowed he would pull me on skis through the town. That was fun. It was a great place to be a child. I wouldn't change that for the world. When I quit playing I want to ski again. Nancy says I have one of everything, but I don't have a place in the mountains. I love the quiet, only the sound of the wind and your skis in the snow."

Once she was nine and being coached in Prague, Martina's life became a whirlwind of school and practice, with a succession of trains and trolleys connecting the two. "I would get out of class at 1:45 and catch the 2:05 train to Prague," she says. "In between I ate lunch and ran a mile to the station. I was in great shape in those days. I never had time to walk."

Martina's mother, Jana, and father, Mirek Subert, were divorced when Martina was three. Three years later Jana married Mirek Navratii. Subert visited Martina once or twice a year until she was about seven, and then he stopped. "When he didn't come I'd ask my mother, 'When will he come to see me?' " says Martina. Not until she was 10 did she learn he had died. He had committed suicide. "My father was very emotional," says Martina. "I think I am just like him."

Another blow she suffered last year was the death of her beloved grandmother, Andela Subertova. Almost worse than her death for Martina was the fact that her parents chose not to tell her about it. She learned of it a month later when she received the traditional black-bordered death notice from an aunt. Martina was sitting in a car parked outside a supermarket in a Dallas shopping center as she spoke of her grandmother, tears streaming down her cheeks. "My grandmother lived in Prague, near the indoor courts at Klamovka," she said. "She would bring me carrot salad and tell me if I ate it I would see better."

Three important events in Martina's life occurred in 1968, when she was 11. First, Parma left Prague to coach in Austria for a while and Martina's stepfather, who had observed Parma's methods for three years, took over. Second, in August, Martina was allowed to travel to Pilsen to play a junior tournament. She stayed at the home of her best friend and doubles partner, Vera Hrdinova, the niece of Vera Sukova, the coach of the women's national team and a Wimbledon finalist in 1962.

Martina and her stepfather arrived in Pilsen on a Thursday night for the tournament, which was to begin the next day and run through Sunday. On Friday morning Martina and her friend were awakened by a call from her friend's father, telling them not to go outside because there were tanks in the streets.

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