`A troublemaker' still makes racket

At 49, Navratilova rarely afraid to speak out



When Martina Navratilova takes the court tonight in Pam Shriver's Mercantile Tennis Challenge at 1st Mariner Arena, tennis fans will see a woman who refuses to be limited by either age or society.

"What I'm doing isn't rare," she said. "It has never been done before."

She isn't talking about playing doubles with John McEnroe here, even though it is the first time in professional, charity or exhibition matches that has occurred. She is talking about being a vibrant, relevant competitor at age 49 - and next season at age 50.

"I plan to play in my 50th year," she said. "No one has done that in an individual sport at this caliber of athleticism, maybe in billiards or skeet, but never in a physically demanding individual sport like tennis."

In the Challenge, she will be keeping company with McEnroe, Jim Courier and Martina Hingis. Navratilova, McEnroe and Courier are Hall of Famers, and Hingis is a former world No. 1 player, who was forced to leave the game because of foot problems.

Navratilova has always been outside the lines and outspoken. She defected from the former Czechoslovakia in 1975 as an 18-year-old because she was sure one day soon Czech officials would no longer let her out of the country - even then, she was outspoken and labeled "a troublemaker."

Only on rare occasions does Navratilova hold back. One of those was more than 25 years ago, when she decided to wait to announce herself as a gay woman. The subject has come up again recently because of the announcement by WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes that she, too, is gay.

"I delayed coming out, not because I feared the loss of sponsors for myself, but for two other reasons," Navratilova said. "No. 1, I was in the process of getting my U.S. citizenship, and under U.S. law then they could kick you out of the country for being a homosexual.

"No. 2, there had just been the scandal of Billie Jean King and her former hairdresser," she said. "I thought me coming out would hurt women's tennis. It had nothing to do with being hurt by the loss of sponsorships. I didn't lose any sponsors because I was gay. I did not get sponsorship because I was gay, and I am on record as saying it has hurt me in getting new sponsorships."

Navratilova, who told the Advocate, a national gay magazine, in 1993 that she was advised to "lie low" so as not to put off potential sponsors, said Swoopes did not come out because of her new sponsorship deal with Olivia, a lesbian travel service Navratilova also endorses.

"You don't come out because you get a new sponsor," Navratilova said. "She came out because she was ready and did not want to hide who she is and pretend to be something else. It's not an easy thing, telling the whole world.

"But trying to be one person in private and another in public is also difficult and gets to be old. Why pretend? She is just being true to herself. The announcement of Olivia is a great thing, but it's much more personal than that."

For Navratilova, life and her desire to let her feelings be known has always been personal.

She wanted to play tennis the way she wanted to play tennis, and so she defected to do it. Now, she still wants to play tennis the way she wants to play tennis and is willing to risk embarrassing losses and do whatever it takes to continue to play the game.

She said others who have played sports before her would have done the same had they been able to.

"A lot of them would play longer if they could," she said. "But they couldn't. I'm not at the same level as 20 years ago, but I'm close and I still bring enjoyment to fans. They say, `You have to keep playing.' And it keeps me going."

She has been asked so many times about how she has been able to do this that she wrote a book in 2004, The Shape of Your Life. In it, she answered all those questions and attempted to give helpful hints to women who have not had the luxury of devoting their workdays to keeping fit.

For Navratilova, it has been about good genes, but also, she said, about "what comes from the inside."

"Desire and lifestyle play a large role," she said. "I've been eating very healthy for 20 years. I take very good care of myself. I don't run quarter-mile sprints anymore. I don't kill myself. But I cover all the basic areas in more efficient, more economical ways.

"My body is like a well-tuned car. It needs to run. We become sluggish and tired because we don't exercise the body. Just a little bit here and there can make a big difference. I feel better when I'm playing tennis."


Tennis Challenge What: Pam Shriver's Mercantile Tennis Challenge. Where: 1st Mariner Arena. When: Tonight, 7

Tennis Challenge

What: Pam Shriver's Mercantile Tennis Challenge; 20th anniversary of an exhibition that benefits area children's charities through the Baltimore Community Foundation.

Where: 1st Mariner Arena

When: Tonight, 7

Tickets: $20 to $100; available by phone at 410-547-7328, at Ticketmaster outlets or at the 1st Mariner Arena box office.

Matches: Legends of Tennis mixed doubles: Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe vs. Martina Hingis and Jim Courier. Women's singles: Navratilova vs. Hingis. Men's singles: McEnroe vs. Courier. Orioles Challenge, featuring Orioles players Melvin Mora and Bruce Chen, coached by Ravens players Adalius Thomas and Chris McAlister.

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