US Open Icon: Martina Navratilova
Published August 11, 2011 11:05
After losing to Chris Evert in the semifinals of the 1975 US Open, an 18-year-old Martina Navratilova was spirited to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service Office in New York to ask for political asylum. Not until 1981 did the Czechoslovakia-born player's US citizenship come through; meantime, she didn't see her family for four years, and visiting her homeland was out of the question. Understandably, Flushing Meadows became tricky emotional ground for a young athlete still struggling to harness her potential.
Despite all the distractions - on-court and off - Navratilova reached the semis of the US Open four times in the late 1970s, and went heartbreakingly close to lifting the trophy in 1981. On that occasion she won the first set of the final against Tracy Austin, 6-1, only to fall in two tie-breaks. Afterwards she broke down as the fans gave her a standing ovation. "I had never felt anything like it in my life," she later said. "Acceptance, respect... maybe even love."
Still, it all felt like underachievement. So when a fit and focused Navratilova finally got the monkey off her back in 1983, crushing Evert to win her first US Open title on her eleventh attempt, victory was incredibly sweet. "If I don't win another tournament in my life, at least I can say I did it all," the 26-year-old beamed. As well as completing a career Grand Slam, the win saw her assume the lead in her rivalry with Evert, 20-19. She stayed there for good.
Much more was to come, of course. Twelve months later, Navratilova defended her title by beating Evert in a thriller, 46 64 64. The win marked her sixth consecutive major in a row, and punctuated a period of near-invincibility that took in a non-calendar year Grand Slam.
While Hana Mandlikova interrupted Navratilova's reign in 1985, she triumphed again in 1986, holding off a surging Steffi Graf in the semis and then Helena Sukova in the final. In 1987, weeks after conceding the No.1 ranking to Graf, Navratilova beat the German for a fourth title. She also won the doubles (with Pam Shriver) and mixed (with Emilio Sánchez) to become the first to capture the tournament's 'triple crown' since Margaret Court in 1970.
Though she wouldn't win another singles title at the US Open, Navratilova was far from done. Graf got the upper hand in the final of 1989 but, seeded fifth in 1991, the American became the event's oldest female runner-up: Having upset Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario and Graf in back-to-back nail-biters she faced Monica Seles in the final; the 17-year, one-month gap between the finalists was the biggest in Grand Slam history.
Although a fourth round loss to Sukova in 1993 signalled the end of her Big Apple singles campaigns, Navratilova, by now a six-times doubles champion, returned after five years to contest the team events from 2000 to 2006. Defying time, she made the doubles final with Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2003, and ended her playing career by winning the mixed with Bob Bryan in 2006. Weeks shy of her 50th birthday, it was another record-setting feat.
Martina's US Open singles highlights:
Champion (4): 1983 (d. Evert), 1984 (d. Evert), 1986 (d. Sukova), 1987 (d. Graf)
Runner-Up (4): 1981 (l. Austin), 1985 (l. Mandlikova), 1989 (l. Graf), 1991 (l. Seles)
Years contested: 1973-1993 (21)
Win-Loss Record: 89-17