As the 1989 season rounded into May, the best female players in the world descended on Roland Garros in distinct moments of their careers. Chris Evert was touring the world as a professional for one last time. Steffi Graf was eviscerating everything in view, having bullied her rivals to six successive slam victories. Others, such as Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and Monica Seles, stood eagerly on the periphery as they awaited their time in the spotlight.
One person was missing. A few weeks earlier, Martina Navratilova had lost on the green clay of Amelia Island in Florida and she departed the court burned out and wondering about what remained of her career. She decided the resolution was to recuse herself from the French Open. At 32, her priorities had shifted and only one remained – she would do everything in her power to win her ninth Wimbledon singles title.
“Martina’s funny about numbers,” says Mary Carillo, a prominent broadcaster and close friend of Navratilova. “She loved the number nine. She wanted to get to 18 [total slams], double nine, and I do believe she knew she could win a couple more Wimbledons. That’s what kept her around. This was her surface.”
It – grass – had been her surface for six straight years between 1982 and 1987, but the end of the 80s were a time of change. One vicious forehand at a time, Graf had broken down the dominance of Navratilova and Evert. She ended the decade with two consecutive wins over Navratilova in Wimbledon finals, both punctuated with fleeting 6-1 final sets. All concepts of invincibility shattered.
“There came a point where her serve wasn’t as potent,” says Carillo. “She couldn’t get as tight to the net. She continued to dominate doubles – she never lost her ‘hands’ – but getting to the net? When you’ve lost half a step, when the first volley you make is from the laces of your shoes instead of from your hip, that’s the kind of stuff that is the tell when you play somebody as quick and as alert as Graf.”
Her will was something else. She had revealed after her win over Graf in the 1987 final that nine was indeed her lucky number and as Graf responded by continually blocking her from her destiny, Navratilova was only bolstered in her belief there was more to come: “Am I insatiable? Yes!” she told Sports Illustrated. “Wimbledon is like a drug. Once you win it, you’ve just got to do it again.”
Wimbledon meant even more than that to her. Carillo only realised the depth of her reverence for the event as Navratilova guided her around her old courts in Revnice, near Prague, for a television feature during Navratilova’s dramatic return to her old home for the United States’ Fed Cup tie against Czechoslovakia in 1986.
“She showed me the backboard that she used to practise on when she was a little kid and she said: ‘I serve and volleyed against this.’ I said: ‘Wait, you what?’ She served and volleyed against a wall. She said: ‘That’s why my hands are so quick.’” Carillo then laughed. “She clearly always had an idea of Wimbledon in her mind.”
In 1990, with a troublesome left knee, Navratilova repeated her strategy. As her rivals ground through the red clay in Europe, Navratilova lifted weights, cycled tirelessly and built her fitness in exhausting games of full-court basketball. She hired Billie Jean King as her coach, who gave tough love and shared brutal home truths as only a fellow all-time great could convincingly do. Navratilova had already spent a lifetime serving and volleying but she resolved the only way to end Graf’s dominance was to be more relentless than ever.
It would not be needed. One week before Wimbledon, rain at the warm-up tournament in Eastbourne forced Navratilova to contest two singles matches and a doubles match in one day, seven sets in total. She arrived at Wimbledon mindful that things could not possibly be more challenging and she soared.
Navratilova did not drop a set throughout, brushing aside Gabriela Sabatini in the semi-final. Instead of Graf, it was the German’s conqueror, Zina Garrison, who awaited her in the final. Navratilova secured the Venus Rosewater Dish with a blazing 6-4, 6-1 win.
“Martina knew that if she could get hold of Zina’s serve, she was going to hold her serve a lot and if she could read Zina’s serves, which she did, she was going to be OK,” says Carillo. “I looked up the match numbers – Martina had 32 winners and nine errors. I mean, come on. That’s just disgusting.”
In the 15 years since she left her family in what is now the Czech Republic, Navratilova competed as her matches were banned from being televised in her country of birth, as the public outing of her sexuality led to sponsors fleeing and as Evert, the other half of the legendary rivalry, , received universal love and attention.
As she broke Helen Wills-Moody’s record of eight Wimbledon titles, equalled Evert’s haul of 18 slams and listened to the cheers of a crowd finally ready to embrace fully their greatest champion, she had nothing left to prove.
“Some people just light up on certain surfaces. She got to two more Wimbledon finals after she won her last major. So she believed,” says Carillo. “God, she was good.”