Steffi Graf is the only player ever to complete a Calendar Golden Slam, winning the four Majors and the Olympics singles gold in one year. Serena Williams is just one short of equalling Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam titles. Both players, understandably, stake their claim to be in the Greatest Of All Time list for their tennis achievements.
But when it comes to Wimbledon – the 2020 edition of which would have started on Monday had it not been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic – the one name that not only gives these two a run for their money but even surpasses them in terms of sheer numbers is that of Martina Navratilova.
She not only won a record nine women’s singles titles, including six in a row, at the hallowed SW19 grass courts, but also has a total of 20 championship medals that included seven women’s doubles and four mixed doubles crowns.
Born in Czechoslovakia, Navratilova learnt the ropes of the game in the former Communist state and then on the hard courts of USA, but there is no doubting the fact that her style of play was most suited to the low bouncing grass courts of Wimbledon.
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Navratilova made her Wimbledon debut in 1973 and barely made it to the quarter-finals in her third attempt in 1975. Her grass-court prowess wasn’t really the talking point then as she had already reached the final of the Australian and French Open and played the semi-finals of US Open.
Soon after the semi-final defeat against Chris Evert at the 1975 US Open, Navratilova decided to defect to the USA and that changed the course of her tennis career. She skipped the Australian and French Open for the next four years but managed to reach her first Wimbledon semi-final in 1976, which she lost to Evert.
It took Navratilova two more years to reach her first Wimbledon final and, as Evert says in her narration in the video tribute made by the tournament’s media team, it was the turning point of the left-hander’s career.
Navratilova fought back from a set down to win the final 2-6, 6-4, 7-4 and returned to the same venue to a year later to beat Evert in straight sets.
|Win||1978||Wimbledon||Chris Evert||2–6, 6–4, 7–5|
|Win||1979||Wimbledon||Chris Evert||6–4, 6–4|
|Win||1982||Wimbledon||Chris Evert||6–1, 3–6, 6–2|
|Win||1983||Wimbledon||Andrea Jaeger||6–0, 6–3|
|Win||1984||Wimbledon||Chris Evert||7–6(7–5), 6–2|
|Win||1985||Wimbledon||Chris Evert||4–6, 6–3, 6–2|
|Win||1986||Wimbledon||Hana Mandlíková||7–6(7–1), 6–3|
|Win||1987||Wimbledon||Steffi Graf||7–5, 6–3|
|Loss||1988||Wimbledon||Steffi Graf||7–5, 2–6, 1–6|
|Loss||1989||Wimbledon||Steffi Graf||2–6, 7–6(7–1), 1–6|
|Win||1990||Wimbledon||Zina Garrison||6–4, 6–1|
|Loss||1994||Wimbledon||Conchita Martínez||4–6, 6–3, 3–6|
“I served it out at love, but I just remember my heartbeat. I’ve never heard my heart beat like that before. It was so loud, but I wasn’t out of breath. It was like an out-of-body experience. I felt like the whole stadium could hear my heart beating,” Navratilova had told the New York Times about that first title triumph.
Despite the two title-winning performances, Navratilova wasn’t the dominant force on the circuit that she went on to become in the 1980s. It was the only double-bagel loss in the 1981 Women’s International Tennis Association Championships final against Evert that changed the way she approached her tennis.
Navratilova then teamed up with former college basketball player Nancy Lieberman to change her strength and fitness routine and worked extensively on her mental strength to become a winning machine.
From 1982 to 87, Navratilova registered 14 of her 18 Grand Slam triumphs and remained unbeaten at Wimbledon for six consecutive years, dropping just three sets in the bargain.
It finally took Graf to end that golden run when the German had one of her best-ever years in 1988. Navratilova suffered the same fate a year later but she was not done yet.
In 1990, Navratilova reached her ninth successive Wimbledon final and Zina Garrison probably did her a huge favour by knocking out Graf in the semi-finals. Then 33, the left-hander brushed past her much younger opponent in straight sets to break Helen Wills Moody’s amateur era record of eight titles.
“This was my match to win. There are always doubts, but I knew this may have been my best chance to do it. I had the chance, and I wanted to grab it,” she had said then.
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Four years later, she reached her 12th Wimbledon final at the age of 37 but could not take her championship tally to double figures after losing to a much young Conchita Martinez in three sets.
She announced her retirement at the end of that year only to return to the circuit in 2000 and went on to win the 2003 mixed doubles title with Leander Paes and the 2006 US Open mixed doubles crown with Bob Bryan.
In 2004, Navratilova was given a women’s singles wild card at Wimbledon and faced a lot of criticism from tennis fans. But even there she made history by becoming the oldest player to win a professional singles match in open era at 47 years and eight months when she defeated Catalina Castona 6-0, 6-1 in the first round.
Evert, who became a dear friend of Navratilova after their initial rivalry, insists that the left-hander’s game was most suited for the grass courts of Wimbledon. Her ability to play the serve and volley game also made her a champion doubles player as she became only the third player in the history of the sport to win singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles in all Grand Slams.
You can watch the video of Chris Evert narrating Navratilova’s Wimbledon journey here.