Navratilova Honored for Her Career in Tennis Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Martina Navratilova was the first woman tennis player and the first out athlete of any gender to be honored with a banner in Madison Square Garden in New York. In 1982, she became the first woman athlete to earn more than $1 million in a single season, and with her earnings, victories, and style of play came a new interest in women’s tennis.

Summary of Event

A great career in women’s tennis ended at the 1994 Virginia Slims Championship Tournament in New York City—or so it seemed. In the first round of play, thirty-eight-year-old Martina Navratilova, America’s reigning tennis champion, lost to twenty-four-year-old Gabriela Sabatini. Navratilova announced her retirement after the match. To honor her career accomplishments, tournament organizers hung a large banner emblazoned with her name in Madison Square Garden in New York City. She was the first woman tennis player, and the first out athlete, to be so honored. Navratilova, and the Virginia Slims Tournament itself, had revolutionized women’s tennis. [kw]Navratilova Honored for Her Career in Tennis (1994) [kw]Tennis, Navratilova Honored for Her Career in (1994) Athletes;Martina Navratilova[Navratilova] Sports;lesbian athletes [c]Sports;1994: Navratilova Honored for Her Career in Tennis[2370] [c]Civil rights;1994: Navratilova Honored for Her Career in Tennis[2370] [c]Organizations and institutions;1994: Navratilova Honored for Her Career in Tennis[2370] Navratilova, Martina King, Billie Jean Heldman, Gladys Cullman, Joseph

Before 1968, sport was still ruled by the amateur principle. Tennis players had to compete for love of the game only, and they lost their amateur status if they derived any income from sport. The men’s professional tour was small, the women’s tour was nonexistent, and public interest in the sport was dwindling. In 1968, as a desperate measure, the four Grand Slams (the U.S., British, French, and Australian) declared themselves open to male and female pros. In 1972, in the midst of a growing women’s rights movement, Title IX of the Education Amendments Title IX, Education Amendments[Title 09] Education Amendments, Title IX was passed, requiring all educational programs or activities that receive federal funding to offer equal opportunity to girls and women in all activities, including sports. While Title IX did not affect professional sports directly, it galvanized many pro women athletes. The U.S. Lawn Tennis Association U.S. Lawn Tennis Association[US Lawn Tennis Association] Tennis Association, U.S. Lawn (USLTA) seemed to not hear, or not care, about women’s complaints regarding the conditions they faced, including lower media visibility and smaller tournament purses.

In 1970, Billie Jean King and several other leading players were outraged at the financial inequities of an upcoming tournament: $12,500 was to be given to the male champion and a measly $1,500 to the female champion. The group took a gamble and broke ranks with the tennis establishment, hoping to form a pro tour.

Help came from the editor of World Tennis Magazine, Gladys Heldman, who put the women in touch with Joseph Cullman, chief executive officer of Philip Morris Company. Philip Morris company, and women’s tennis The tobacco giant had just introduced the Virginia Slims brand in hopes of tapping the growing market that included young women. The company’s ads featured models who looked fashionably lean and active and had the line “you’ve come a long way, baby.” Cullman, a tennis lover, already sponsored the U.S. Open. He did not need much persuading to sponsor a high-profile women’s tour. In fall of 1970, the first Virginia Slims Tournament Virginia Slims Tournament was launched in Houston with $7,500 in prize money. The USLTA retaliated against the women who protested earlier by suspending them, but the tour was such a hit that the USLTA finally backed down.

By 1971 the Virginia Slims tour had exploded—nineteen cities and a purse of $309,100. King became the first woman athlete to earn a six-digit income in a single season. In 1973, the Women’s International Tennis Association (now the Women’s Tennis Association), Women’s Tennis Association[Womens Tennis] founded by King, established the Virginia Slims Championship as the climax event of each season.

Meanwhile, Navratilova had come a long way herself. Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1956, she already had been a powerful left-handed talent at age twelve and was coached by her father, a former tennis player. She came out of the communist world’s farm system, which aimed to produce athletes that would dominate in international competition. Typically, the women athletes who came out of this system were not discouraged or afraid to be strong Masculinity;female and aggressive, and they often had contempt for the “femininity” Femininity;in women’s sports[womens sports] that female athletes of Democratic nations felt compelled to display. Gender expression was such a hot issue that many Westerners actually convinced themselves that some Eastern-bloc women athletes were really men in disguise, prompting the International Olympic Committee Olympic Committee, International;and gender-testing policy[gender testing policy] to start its gender-testing policy in 1968.

In 1972, at age sixteen, Navratilova won the Czech women’s singles title. She then came to international attention when she led the Czech team to victory in the Federation Cup, the top team competition in women’s tennis, sponsored by the International Tennis Federation. The following year the Czech government sent her to the U.S. Open. The seventeen-year-old fell in love with the United States. Navratilova looked at the Virginia Slims tour and realized she could make a life for herself in the United States. In 1975, overcoming the Czech officials nervous about her loyalty, she wangled another visa to the U.S. Open. Once there, she contacted U.S. officials and asked for political asylum. Navratilova boldly told them that she was bisexual, taking the risk that her application would be denied. It was not, and she got her green card.

Settling into American life, Navratilova increased her strength and speed by cross-training in other sports—notably with women’s basketball pioneer Nancy Lieberman. Rumors circulated about a sexual relationship between the two, but Navratilova ignored the rumors and kept training. She was the best woman tennis player in the world by the early 1980’s. Her aggressive serve-and-volley game was more typical of male players, and it proved devastating to her female opponents, who were accustomed to making strategic shots off the baseline. Her blunt, outspoken manner and her more masculine look—tousled hair, shorts, well-defined muscles—stood in stark contrast to the girl-next-door appeal of many women she faced on the court.

Indeed, her toughest competitor, Chris Evert, Evert, Chris was the embodiment of the old-style American tennis game and of traditional femininity. Sports Illustrated noted,

Just as the NBA had [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson], as boxing had [Muhammad] Ali and [Joe] Frazier, and as golf had [Jack] Nicklaus and [Arnold] Palmer, so did women’s tennis once boast an epic rivalry. For upwards of 15 years, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova matched each other shot for shot, fighting over the sport’s most coveted titles and playing an ongoing game of leapfrog for the No. 1 ranking.…Evert was the picture of consistency, keeping her foes at bay with classic, impeccably positioned strokes and a will of iron. Navratilova was a relentlessly aggressive athlete who attacked at every opportunity and forced the action.

Evert’s fans saw Martina as a “bad guy,” and they reviled her openly, but this rivalry packed the stands and pushed TV ratings—it ended up being good for women’s tennis, and women’s sports.

By this time hundreds of women were playing the Virginia Slims tour, which offered forty-seven events and $10 million in prize money. In 1982, Navratilova became the first woman to earn more than $1 million in a single season. In 1984, she received a $1-million bonus from the International Tennis Federation for winning all four Grand Slam singles in the same year. Indeed, by this time the women were earning more than the men—when Navratilova broke the $2 million barrier for one season, she earned more than John McEnroe, the leading male player at the time. By 1986, Navratilova, thirty years old and seemingly unstoppable, handily winning games against younger players, passed $10 million in career earnings.

Times were changing, however. The movement against tobacco kicked in, and growing numbers of women rejected the idea that smoking could make women attractive, as the Virginia Slims cigarette ads implied. In 1990, another Philip Morris company, Kraft General Foods, took over the tour’s permanent sponsorship, though the Virginia Slims name was still associated with the event through 1994. The season’s purse soared to $23 million.

By the mid-1990’s, Navratilova’s grit and her power game had finally won a huge following, including thousands of lesbians and bisexual women. Asked about the fierce partisan applause, Navratilova said, “For years I felt I was unappreciated and now I’m over-appreciated. I hit an average shot and get a standing ovation and I hit a great shot and they go, like, well, nice. It’s like—I’m the home team everywhere I go.”

Tennis insiders had known about Navratilova’s sexual orientation. In 1981, after she became a U.S. citizen, she stated publicly that she was bisexual. She once told Barbara Walters that she enjoyed sleeping with both women and men but preferred waking up with women. By 1991, palimony litigation by former life-partner Judy Nelson put Navratilova’s name in the tabloids. However, coming out cost her heavily in commercial endorsements. Not until 2000 did a major corporation, Subaru, sign her for an advertising contract.


Coming out in U.S. sports has been more challenging to GLBT people than coming out in the arts or even politics. While most sports require male athletes to live up to a strict heterosexual and hypermasculine image, female athletes are held to an equally strict standard of heterosexual femininity. Inevitably, the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York City led to the first wave of athletes who came out: pro-football player David Kopay, decathlete Tom Waddell, baseball umpire Dave Pallone, tennis player Billie Jean King, and others. In 1995, gay diver Greg Louganis came out not only as gay but also HIV-positive, the first out gay athlete to announce his HIV status.

In the early twenty-first century, more than one hundred prominent GLBT athletes and coaches are listed as “out athletes” by However, the old biases still hold painful leverage on the lives of athletes. While lesbians and bisexual women are more visible in some individual sports, such as tennis, golf, fencing, boxing, and equestrian, the “L” issue is still a taboo one in team sports, such as soccer and basketball.

As the 1990’s arrived, Navratilova kept winning and was seemingly indestructible. However, her direct style had forced a paradigm shift in the game of other players. Younger players were now attacking with the same cannonball serves and blistering volleys. Plus, the thirty-eight-year-old veteran was slowing down just a little. After Sabatini beat her at the 1994 Virginia Slims Tournament, Navratilova announced her retirement from singles competition, but she said she would continue in doubles and exhibitions. As the historic banner went up, she told a reporter, “Emotionally, I’ve been doing well, I’ve been ready for this.”

Overall, Navratilova has set a hard-to-beat record with 9 victories at Wimbledon, 167 singles titles, 173 doubles titles, 18 singles and 40 doubles wins in Grand Slams, and more than $21 million in career earnings. When Sports Illustrated put together its 100 Greatest Women Athletes list, it gave her the edge over Chris Evert, placing her at number 5 and Evert at number 6.

A moving tribute came from Evert herself, who told Women’s Sport & Fitness magazine, “I always admired her maturity, her wisdom and her ability to transcend the sport. You could ask her about her forehand or about world peace and she always had an answer. She really is a world figure, not just a sports figure.”

With the new millennium, Navratilova returned to limited doubles competition. In 2001, when she played the Open Day España tournament in Madrid, Kathleen Wilkinson wrote in the Lesbian News, “Navratilova became the oldest woman to win a tour event—singles or doubles.…Most of the players on the women’s tennis circuit today are less than half Navratilova’s age. Her current Grand Slam doubles partner, Iroda Tulyaganova, is just 20.” Navratilova liked to joke that she was called “grandma” behind her back.

In 2004, Navratilova’s doubles comeback was capped—at age forty-eight—by being selected for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. She and tennis partner Lisa Raymond made it to the Athens quarterfinals, defeating younger players such as France’s Amelie Mauresmo. Along with two other tennis figures—Mauresmo and Spain’s Conchita Martinez—Navratilova was one of eleven out athletes in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. Athletes;Martina Navratilova[Navratilova] Sports;lesbian athletes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cahn, Susan K. Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport. New York: Free Press, 1994.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">International Tennis Hall of Fame. “Martina Navratilova.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Navratilova, Martina. Shape Your Self. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Books, 2006.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Navratilova, Martina, with George Vecsey. Martina. New York: Knopf, 1985.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillips, Caryl, ed. The Right Set: A Tennis Anthology. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Women’s Tennis Association. http://www.wtatour .com.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zwerman, Gilda. Martina Navratilova. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.

August 28, 1982: First Gay Games Are Held in San Francisco

1995: Athlete Louganis Announces He Is HIV-Positive

May 17, 2004: Transsexual Athletes Allowed to Compete in Olympic Games

Categories: History