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When tennis collided with the cold war

When tennis collided with the cold war

Thirty years ago, Martina Navratilova played in the final of the Federation Cup. It was much more than a tennis match

Thirty years ago, Martina Navratilova played in the final of the Federation Cup. It was much more than a tennis match

George Pendle | July 27th 2016

It is three o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday July 27th 1986. Every seat is full at the pristine new Stvanice tennis stadium, situated on an island on the Vltava River in Prague. People crouch on the stadium steps, craning their necks, chattering excitedly. Czechoslovakia, the host nation of this year’s Federation Cup, the most important team competition in women’s tennis, is facing off against the United States of America. But something more than a tennis match is taking place.

In the stadium there is a box separated from the bubbling crowd by armed guards. Sitting in it are seven greying men. They are sullen and stony-faced, their grim demeanour in stark contrast to the excitement that surrounds them. There is no mistaking it – the Czech politburo is unhappy. But why? Czechoslovakia has become the first communist country to host the Federation Cup. Not only that but their country is in the final. But no, something has got them piqued and if you follow their stares down on to the court you can see the object of their displeasure. She is blonde, 29 years old, and five feet eight inches tall. She is wearing broad silver-frame glasses, a white skirt and a white top with a splash of blue across the shoulder. Martina Navratilova, the world’s number-one tennis player, has unsettled the regime. 

On court the Czech national anthem is being played and its refrain seems to sum up the past decade of Navratilova’s life:

“Kde domov můj
Kde domov můj?”

“Where is my home?
Where is my home?”

Eleven years before, when she was just 18, Navratilova had defected to the United States from Czechoslovakia. In an instant she had freed herself from government minders, from having her prize money confiscated, from the threat of having her passport taken away. But she had also lost her family and friends. She had lost her home. It was a strange kind of freedom she had gained. 

Although she was a resident of the United States, the peripatetic life of the professional player meant the only place she had truly been able to call home was the 78ft by 36ft rectangle of the tennis court. It was here that she played out her intense rivalry with the fans’ favourite, Chris Evert, as they fought for the number one world ranking. It was here that she weathered the boos, catcalls and shouts of “Go back to Russia!” from the American crowds. Her sheer persistence, her bulldog style of play – serve and volley while most other players, including Evert, kept to the baseline – made the fans admire her almost despite themselves. 

The Czechs in the stadium had lived under de facto Soviet rule since Russian tanks had rolled through the Prague streets in 1968. Their homeland had disappeared and been replaced by a twisted system replete with interrogations, intimidations and random imprisonments. Houses were bugged and the secret police were always listening. It was a country that offered no repose.

“Where is my home?
Where is my home?”

Navratilova knew that the answer to the question could only be found by returning to Czechoslovakia. In 1985 she had requested a visa to visit the country of her birth but had been denied. However, one year later the authorities had been forced to relent when she was selected for the US Federation Cup team. The communist government was in a quandary: they wanted to host the tournament to show how normal life in a communist country was, but they would undermine that message by banning the world’s best player. They gave Navratilova the visa but they were not about to shine a spotlight on her.

In fact they did everything in their power to negate her presence. At some press conferences Navratilova had her microphone turned off, at others she was surrounded by Czech officials to prevent the international media from talking to her. Her matches were not broadcast on Czech television and the Czech papers were forbidden from reporting them. Photographers were prohibited from picking up a camera when Navratilova was playing. The match umpires did not even refer to her by name, but simply as “the woman player from the United States”. The Czech authorities were determined to show that while she may be the world number one in tennis, in their eyes she was a non-person.

Yet Navratilova could not be ignored. Her presence was magnetic. Jane Brown Grimes, a former president of the United States Tennis Association who was in Prague at the time and has since written about the competition, recalled how crowds flocked to the outside court where the United States team was playing its matches, ignoring the giant stadium where the Czech national team was competing. Passing trains slowed down to let their passengers catch a glimpse of her. She quickly became the most sought-after player at the tournament.

The official censorship finally broke in the quarter-finals when Navratilova was facing the Italian player Raffaella Reggi. As the umpire yet again introduced Navratilova as “the woman player from the United States” the crowd openly rebelled and started chanting in Czech, “Say her name! Say her name!” over and over again until the chanting was so loud that neither player could hear the umpire. With the crowd showing no sign of relenting, and realising the match would have to be abandoned – a terrible loss of face – the umpire finally gave way and announced, “Miss Navratilova”. The crowd roared in response, then calmed down, and the game could finally begin. The tennis court, for Navratilova and the Czech crowd, had become a place of liberation.

Then came the final round between the US and Czechoslovakia, played in a best-of-three format. The US had won the first match, and now Navratilova could clinch the cup with victory. She was to face Hana Mandlíková, who she had beaten in the Wimbledon final a few weeks before. But the pressure Navratilova felt now was even greater than in a grand-slam final. It was the pressure of becoming a symbol. Win and she would show the crowd how to defy the system and triumph. Lose and she would become a communist cautionary tale.

Both players initially looked strong and the match went with serve. Mandlíková fought off a couple of break points but was growing in confidence. The 8,000 spectators applauded her on and it was not hard to see why. Yes, Mandlíková was the home favourite but she was also regarded as the most graceful player on the tour at the time. She too played a serve-and-volley game, but while Navratilova was overwhelmingly physical, charging and diving, Mandlíková was so light on her feet she hardly seemed to touch the court. At 5-6 and leading 40-0, Mandlíková was about to send the set into a tiebreaker. But a momentary lapse of concentration and a missed shot proved a turning point. Navratilova saw weakness and pounced, returning her serves with venom spitting from her strings. At deuce a whipping backhand return landed at Mandlíková’s feet, doubling her up and forcing her to net the ball. Unnerved at this sudden ferocity Mandlíková double-faulted and handed the break, and the set, to Navratilova.

In the second set Navratilova kept up the attack. Volley after volley left the graceful Mandlíková looking leaden footed. The crowd, thrilling to this masterclass in tennis began to applaud and then cheer. To the dismay of the watching politburo officials the crowd began chanting for Navratilova. They cheered her for her skill and tenacity but also because she represented what everyone but the state apparatchiks wanted – the right to be oneself. The tennis match had become a public act of defiance. 

The final game of the second set saw Navratilova fire four straight winners past Mandlíková in a remarkable display of shot-making. She moved to match point with a diving volley that sparked a sustained ovation. And then, within one point of victory, she rushed the net and a powerful backhand sealed the win. The crowd exploded. She thrust her arms in the air. Amid the pandemonium a host of small American flags appeared in the stadium as if they had sprouted from fertile ground. The seven greying men of the politburo, who had been growing increasingly aghast throughout the match, stood up in unison. Then, turning their backs on the court, the crowd and Navratilova, they left the stadium. They had lost. Navratilova had come home.

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