Martina Navratilova won a staggering total of 59 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles – more than any Open Era player. Even though she has been there, done that, she can’t wait to get on the Friday flight from Miami to Paris.
“It’s always exciting to be going there, but particularly now that we’re back in the normal flow,” she told the wtatennis.com. “With Covid-19, there was a big pause on the whole world, and now we’re ready to get back to work.”
After the 2020 Australian Open, the only other tournament she worked on site as a Tennis Channel analyst was the French Open last fall. And now, eight months later, she’s back in Paris – only this time the city isn’t in complete lockdown and there will be some fans in the seats.
Navratilova, who won 11 total titles at Roland Garros, including two in singles, says she’s making the two defending champions her co-favorites.
“It’s a unique situation,” she said. “On the women’s side, we have two defending champions, because Ashleigh never defended. And so is Iga. But I’m just happy we’re getting back to playing a familiar schedule.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Navratilova – with typical humor and insight – broke down some of the leading storylines heading into the action that starts Sunday.
Last fall, unseeded Iga Swiatek came out of nowhere and won at Roland Garros. Expectations are a lot different for her coming in this year. What does she need to do to defend?
Navratilova: She showed [how strong she remains on clay] in Rome, didn’t she? With an exclamation point. Ash Barty also could defend her title, which she didn’t get a chance to do last year.
And Swiatek - I mean, she came out of nowhere, pretty much. I remember seeing her a couple of years ago and I asked how to pronounce her name, because I knew I would be pronouncing it in the future, and I wanted to get it right from the beginning. And then she just burst through the gate and blew it wide open. But now she’s been backing it up, and it’s clear that she’ll be a talent that will be here for a long time if she stays healthy.
Really fun to watch. Such a good head on her shoulders. I wish I had her psychology doctor when I first started out at 18. I would have more than I did, for sure. And I would have been happier on the court.
She is covering all her bases. She’s not afraid to get out of her comfort zone. And when you get outside your comfort zone and work on shots and tactics, and then it becomes your second nature, your new comfort zone. But you have to get outside of it first to widen the zone. She’s totally not afraid of experimenting and trying new things and maybe she gets that from watching Agnieszka Radwanska. She’s such a mature 19-year-old.
World No.1 Ashleigh Barty, the 2019 champion, comes in a little nicked up (thigh and arm injuries) after retiring from a quarterfinal match in Rome. What adjustments has she made to her game?
Navratilova: She’s been running around her forehand a little more lately, but otherwise it’s old-school tennis. All-around, uses the whole court – kind of like [Martina] Hingis with a bigger forehand. Slices. She sees the whole court, not just parts of it. What I love about her, is you can give her whatever game plan works for that opponent, and she can execute it. Serve and volley – she can do that. Serve and stay back. Run around the forehand, hit more backhands. She moves well. She’s got it all going on.
It’s fun to see her changing things during the match, as well, because she can have a Plan B or Plan C or Plan D. She problem-solves really well. And you can’t tell whether she’s winning or losing. Kind of like Roger [Federer]. He doesn’t rush, nor does he slow down. Same rhythm with Ash. She’s not so much into the end result, she’s in the process. And if you stay in the process, the end result will be the one you want.
Two-time Roland Garros champion Serena Williams has produced a 1-2 record (all on red clay) since the Australian Open. What are the odds she can get Grand Slam No. 24 to tie Margaret Court?
Navratilova: I think this is more a preparation for Wimbledon. She needs match play. No matter how good you are, you need match play. I was surprised that she played as little as she did. For her it’s just about that No. 24, it’s just about that major – which is fine. But I think she has erred on the side of not playing enough. Although I think I’d rather play too little than too much. But you’re always looking for that balance, which changes as you get older.
She may win three or four matches – I mean, she could win the whole thing, but unlikely with everybody else playing so well. If she gets three or four matches and gets ready for the grass, the most likely major for her to get No. 24 is Wimbledon, obviously. You can’t write her off. I always say it’s Serena against the field, but on clay, that’s not the case. But she’s still a contender. How many active players have won the French Open more than once? She’s the only one.
Aryna Sabalenka seems to have harnessed her composure; she beat Ash Barty in the Madrid final. What impresses you about her game?
Navratilova: I think the reason people go for too much is because they don’t have that median shot, that median rally ball that you hit 75-80 percent of the time, just keeping the ball deep – the shot that [Victoria] Azarenka hits most of the time. Sabalenka needed that shot and I think she’s got it now.
And once you have the confidence to do that, then you don’t try to pull the trigger too soon. So she has harnessed her power in that she uses it at better moments. For her, the pace was 25 winners and 35 unforced errors. Now she’s flipped that, she’s 35 winners, 25 unforced errors. And she forced a lot of errors as well from the other players because they don’t want to give her anything good to hit.
She’s come a long way. I really like the way she’s been competing. She used to get down on herself, and now when she does get down, she seems to get more fired up than just whiny. Us Slavs have whiny in our DNA. I know I used to get whiny, so I recognize it when I see it.
Coco Gauff, a semifinalist in Rome and the Parma champion, is the youngest American woman in the top 25 – since Serena Williams in 1998. Do you like what you see?
Navratilova: Yes, definitely. She started on this trajectory sooner than most. I think Covid actually helped her, kind of took the pressure off. At 15, 16, you can’t play the full schedule anyway, so she just aged into a full schedule without losing anything on the rest of the field – because they couldn’t play, either. Right? That gave her time to work on things and improve, and she has.
So I don’t think it was as much a negative as it would have been for Roger [Federer] or Serena – they aged a year without being able to play. For her, Coco didn’t lose anything. She honed her skills without losing any ground. Things kind of slowed down because she was so good so soon, and sometimes it can be too much. So she settled into being a star without having won big yet, but we know it is coming.
Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, hasn’t played much lately. She pulled out of Strasbourg after two wins with an abdominal injury. Can she put together a run?
Navratilova: Hopefully it’s not serious. Abdominals heal quickly because of the blood flow. If she just rests, it heals pretty fast. I hope she’s OK. Fingers crossed, because a healthy Andreescu is a contender on any surface.
There are a number of dark horses to choose from. Who do you like?
Navratilova: You have to say Karolina Pliskova because when she is on, she can beat anybody, clearly. But it’s more difficult in a major because it’s seven matches. And if you’re off once, you aren’t going to win the title. She seems to be functioning a little better with [coach] Sascha Bajin, so we’ll see. You can’t count her out.
Maria Sakkari can upset anybody, but I don’t think she’s got the game to win quite yet. She puts in the miles, like Jen Brady. Put in the work, and the results will come.
Paula Badosa. She’s been a surprise. I saw her a couple of years ago. I thought, “Boy, she’s got the game, she’s got the look – she’ll be a superstar if she starts winning.” She has that spunk and that athlete walk. No pressure, confidence – it’s a great place to be.
Veronika Kudermetova. Same thing, really good athlete. Made her mark in doubles, and now she’s succeeding in singles as well. I like her potential. She could go a long way, maybe not quite yet here.