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Martina Navratilova

Behind The Iron Curtain

She was born in Prague as Martina Subertova. Her father killed himself when she was very young, and when her mother remarried, to Marislav Navratil, Martina took her stepfather's name, adding the feminine suffix "ova." She was capable in many sports, including

Martina Navratilova

hockey and skiing. Growing up in the suburb of Revnice, and competing against boys was no big deal. "I'm not very psychologically oriented and I have no idea how I was affected by my real father's abandonment, the secrets and the suicide, or my feeling about being a misfit, a skinny little tomboy with short hair," she wrote in her autobiography, Martina. "In Czechoslovakia, nobody ever put me down for running around with boys, playing ice hockey and soccer."

She began playing tennis at age six, on the slow clay courts of Czechoslovakia. She won the Czech national championship at age 15. "Navratilova eschewed the polite, baseline-anchored woman's game," Larry Schwartz for the ESPN.com web site. "With a wicked serve, a rush to the net and a ferocious volley, she was a full-court drama, complete with emotional outbursts." She turned pro in 1973, at age 16, and for her first two professional years, experienced a taste of life outside the Iron Curtain. "For the first time in my life I was able to see America without the filter of a Communist education, Communist propaganda. And it felt right," she wrote in her autobiography.

She drew on her clay-court experience by defeating clay specialist Nancy Richey at the 1973 French Open and, though unseeded, she reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. Later that year she lost to Evert in an indoor match in Akron, Ohio, the first of 80 matches against Evert.

After Czech sports federation authorities tried to limit her travel in 1975, feeling she was becoming too Americanized, Navratilova decided to defect. After losing to Evert in the semifinals in the 1975 U.S. Open at Forest Hills, New York, Navratilova visited the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Manhattan and got her green card. She became a U.S. citizen in 1981 and for years, the Czech media refused to print or broadcast the results of her matches. (She returned to her homeland in 1986, amid media hype, and embarrassed the Czech government by leading the U.S. Federation Cup team to victory).

But Navratilova gained weight in the late 1970s, unable to control her liking for American fast food. Her game suffered when she ballooned to 167 pounds; tennis writer Bud Collins labeled her "the Great Wide Hope." She eventually got her diet under control and undertook a training regiment that included weightlifting, running sprints and studying all aspects of tennis. She also became one of the first athletes to use a personal trainer and one of the first female tennis players to work heavily on muscle tone.

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Famous Sports StarsTennisMartina Navratilova Biography - Behind The Iron Curtain, Prominence, Rivalry With Evert, Chronology, Speaks Out For Gays - SELECTED WRITINGS BY NAVRATILOVA: