Thesis: In what many observers consider the greatest rivalry in the history of sport, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova helped change societally constructed ideas about female identity. Chris Evert proved that you could be an intensely driven professional woman and “feminine” at the same time. Martina, well, Martina’s the missing heroine in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Her story (herstory) mirrors the archetypal hero’s journey in all the world’s myths and religions.
I: Departure, the Call to Adventure. One of the first prominent athletes to risk defecting in secret from an Eastern bloc country, Martina left her family behind reading the newspapers: “Martina Navratilova preferred a fat bank account.” Her call to adventure included American freedom, its endless opportunities, its many doors of ice cream fries Big Macs Whoppers . . . Won the first three of her 18 grand slam singles titles as “The Great Wide Hope” (Bud Collins).
II: Initiation, the Road of Trials. “I never thought there was anything wrong with being gay.” To say one was a lesbian was to turn one’s back on the holy trinity of money, fame, virtue. Martina’s life as a private-becoming-public lesbian. Martina’s life as an eastern-bloc defecting private-becoming-public emotional yet intellectual yet devil-may-care lesbian. Add to that the most challenging question: how do I beat Chris Evert? So workouts, weights, diet. A complete body makeover like the kind you only see on TV. Once Martina married her hard-earned athleticism to her imaginative skill for attacking the net on lefty serves, big forehands, and biting knifed backhands, what could poor Chrissie do? What could anyone?
III: The Hero’s Return, the Public “Boon.” Not true in the case of our heroine! Martina never returned to us; we finally caught up to her. We now hold these truths as self-evident: that you can love who you want to love, that you are what you eat, that female athletes lift weights, that getting older does not mean you must stop competing. Martina won the Wimbledon doubles title a few months shy of her fiftieth birthday. Just as many early feminists saw Eve not as a sinner but as heroine who challenged the status quo, someone who by reaching for the fruit of greater knowledge broke the patriarchy’s rules and was punished for “disobedience,” Martina’s now a heroine for many. Martina’s mainstream now.
The Painting above of Martina Navratilova–70 x 70 x 3.5 cm, oil on canvas–was a commissioned work by the Berlin Tennis Gallery, G-Anne Fixemer. For a great introduction to The Berlin Tennis Gallery, check out this short introductory video:
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6 replies on “Martina Navratilova: Heroine with a Thousand Faces”
An all-time great from early on in the Evert-Navratilova era was Evonne Goolagong. I’ll never forget meeting her. Her aura was (is) angelic. I felt like I was walking on clouds for two days after.
Great you got to meet Evonne Goolagong. One of my favorite players to watch. An incredibly graceful player. An incredible story, too. Thanks for sharing this.
David, I even had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play doubles with Evonne in a Pro-Am against Pam Shriver and a television reporter. At the time, I wrote tennis articles, so journalists and tennis stars were invited to play against each other in the Pro-Am. It was one of the best days of my life! Evonne is a living angel.
That’s so awesome. I, like many, was always in awe of how Evonne Goolagong moved on the court. I think Martina N. called it “serve and saunter” instead of serve and volley. Here’s the last few lines of a piece I published on her in Another Chicago Review a couple years ago: Goolagong means “tall trees near still water” Wiradjuri word “gulagallang” means something like “a big mob” Goolagong walkabout a loss of concentration that’s what the commentators said Goolagong walkabout “a nomadic tradition, a cleansing of the spirit by moving to another place for a time” after many years Goolagong: “I believe the way I played the game reflected a calmness, a serenity of spirit which I now equate with being Aboriginal.”
Impossible to do her justice with words alone! Thanks for sharing your experience with Evonne.
[…] With Soviet Union Forever! the propoganda posters shout. Propaganda Posters = Truth, the truth of propaganda posters. Jan Kodes the “son of an independent businessman—reject application to Secondary education!” Eventually the Czechs soften their communist principles. Kodes witnessed the result outside his window in August, 1968: a parking lot full of Russian tanks. Kodes one of those tennis players (a “bourgeois decadent pastime”) with no real weaknesses. He hits every shot well, triumphs twice in the clay wars of attrition at Roland Garros in 1970, 1971. Before his 1973 Wimbledon final against Alexi Metreveli, all his Czech friends plead in whispers: “Beat the Russian.” “Please, beat the Russian.” Military officers during the match: “Well, sir, what are going to do with Kodes? He is beating Metreveli!” Kodes’ biggest worry: If he loses the Wimbledon final, his countrymen will think the Russians ordered him to lose. His biggest joy after he wins: a hug from a teenaged Martina Navratilova. […]
[…] and applaud, turning Martina’s tears into her first moment of public acceptance for the eastern-bloc-defecting-lesbian-overly-emotional-overly-intellectual-overly-masculine-status-quo-shat… figure she was. Martina has Tracy to thank for […]