For me, it was always Martina. She’s six years older than me, but we grew up in the same tennis club, called Sparta, in Prague. I was her ball girl when there was league matches. I would pick up tennis balls for her. There were league matches between the clubs and Prague was always at the top, so she played for our club.

I also played in the club, and when they were looking for ball boys and ball girls, I wanted to do it — because there were other players who were also very good, like Renata Tomanova and Regina Marsikova, that I wanted to see, and I wanted to ball girl for them.

I remember I was too shy to come up to her, but it’s funny, because when I was having a book written about me, the writer who wrote it did an interview with her, and she said that she remembered me as this 12-year-old kid who had a great hand to toss her the balls. But at that age, I was too shy to say hi, or even ‘I like the way you play.’

When she defected at age 18, I was playing in a tournament, the Czech women’s national championships, that August somewhere near Prague at the same time. Suddenly, from one day to the next, the news spread to the club that Martina had defected, and I remember that so vividly.

At the time, we were in a communist country, and I said to myself, like, ‘Oh my god,’ you know, ‘She’s so good, and at such a young age, she’s going to go through this.’

Things like not seeing her parents, not being able to go back — I said that… that was braveness. I didn’t think that I could do that. It’s a very vivid memory for me, even being 12 years old at that time.

It took me another five years until I made it on the tour where I could see her like that. I watched on television when I could, because another player I really liked to watch was Evonne Goolagong, and I was always wishing that one day, I could play them — and I had to wait that five years before I was really able to do that.

Hana Mandlikova in action in 1980.

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Martina and I played for the first time in 1980. At Amelia Island, I lost to her in three sets, but I really remember our second match that year, which was in Mahwah, New Jersey. It was a WTA tournament right before the US Open, and that’s where I beat her for the first time.

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The day before [after winning the quarterfinals against Dianne Balestrat of Australia], there was a moment where, all of a sudden, I couldn’t move — my foot started to hurt so badly that I said to my coach, ‘There’s no way that I can play tomorrow because I cannot move.’

Ultimately, I thought, ‘Just go and try, because it’s Martina. You’ve wanted to do this for so long. If you can’t do it, you can always pull out.’

So I’m going to play, and from minute to minute, my foot is fine. That was a funny thing for me, between what nerves and everything else can do. Maybe I’d been looking forward to play her so much all this time… that it helped!

I don’t know what it was, but it was weird, very weird. We played again at the US Open, like a week after, and I beat her twice in a row.

Hana Mandlikova reacts to winning the 1985 US Open against Martina Navratilova, 7–6(3), 1–6, 7–6(2).

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Our second US Open match in [the women’s final in] 1985… it was a crazy match. The first five games in the first set, everything I touched went in.

Returns of serve, half-volleys, everything. She couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t believe how well I was playing… but I got a little tight, and she came back all the way to a tiebreak.

In the tiebreak, I played very well again to win it, but I don’t know what happened in the second set. She went into another gear, and I maybe let up a little, and she won it, 6-1.

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The third set, it was 3-3, 4-3… I broke her for 5-3 to serve for the match and I was 30-0 up, as I remember, and she played four unbelievable shots to break me back. We made it to 6-6 again, and I was lucky enough to play my best to win the tiebreak and the match.

The 1985 US Open is the most cherished, the most loved Grand Slam for me. I played the best tennis there of the four that I won, and to this day, the best feelings I have are the ones when I think about winning that US Open. 

Hana Mandlikova and the 1985 US Open trophy.

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Doubles wasn’t really my thing that much, but Martina and I also got to play together a few times, and together, we won the 1989 US Open. I always liked to play with her in doubles.

She played with Pam Shriver for so many years and they did so well, winning so many Grand Slams, and I also played with Wendy Turnbull, the Australian player, who’s a very good friend of mine.

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I wish that we could’ve played together more because it was so much fun. Having Martina on the same side, having played against each other so many times, it was awesome for me.

I’m almost 60 years old now, and I look at it all like this. I was very ambitious in my time, and when you look at my record against her, I lost most of the time. We played a similar style — clearly, she was the better player, but when I was young, this was difficult to swallow sometimes.

As you get older, tennis matches are not as important as life, or kids, or family — things like that. I think the most important thing, when you stop playing tennis… is to enjoy your life and to be happy.

She was a tremendous player who was an example for me, and I just really want to take my hat off to her for what she achieved.

From an interview with Victoria Chiesa.