THE BLOG
08/25/2015 12:42 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2016

Martina Navratilova: The Tennis Player Who Came in from the Cold

Years later, she would say that at least one good part about Communism was that it endorsed the notion that women could be world-class athletes. A tiny aspect of Communist policy -- athletic success on any terms could tilt the Cold War - proved all the opening she'd need. Still, it's likely that when Martina Navratilova first picked up a tennis racquet at the age of six, she was hardly aware of geopolitical factors. But she learned quickly.

When Navratilova was 11 years old, on August 21, 1968, Soviet tanks invaded her native Czechoslovakia, crushing the country's fledgling spirit of reform. "Our hopes had been built up so high -- 'socialism with a human face,'" wrote Navratilova in her 1985 autobiography, "-- and now we were getting a boot in our face."

Tennis was fair -- with clear rules, lines and scoring. Even more, as an individual sport, tennis was based on the opposite of Communism: supreme self-reliance. Tennis' ethos of independence and choice would thoroughly captivate the young Navratilova inside and outside the lines. As she recently told me, "Tennis is the purest form of democracy. There was a symbiotic, chicken and egg relationship for me between democracy and tennis."

Life under Soviet rule, though, was anything but fair. To be sure, athletes were served dollops of freedom. Jan Kodes, a Czech star ten years older than Navratilova, was given the chance to travel the world. But even Kodes was kept on a leash. In the fall of 1973, the same year he'd won Wimbledon (beating a Russian in the final), the 27-year-old Kodes was offered a choice: Give up competitive tennis or join the army. A deal was worked out, a charade that let Kodes live at home but report each morning for a 7:00 a.m. roll call. Over the course of his six-month stint, Kodes was frequently questioned (interrogated?) about his travel schedule and acquaintances such as Jaroslav Drobny. Drobny had defected from Czechoslovakia in 1949 and five years later won Wimbledon. A Czech military officer admonished Kodes, telling him, "You should not have said that you met Drobny."

Call Navratilova's environment a mildly humane version of a George Orwell scenario (if such is possible). Big Tennis Brother enjoyed knowing that such players as Kodes and young hopefuls like Navratilova could bring glory. By 1975, the 18-year-old Navratilova was one of the top four players in the world. She would earn more than $165,000 in prize money that year, the premise being that Navratilova would give the Czech tennis authorities 20 percent of her earnings. "The Czech tennis federation wasn't holding me back," she said. "But they could still pull the plug anytime they wanted." Czech authorities were also worried that Navratilova was becoming, as she later wrote, "too Americanized," and began exerting control over her travel and tournament schedule.

Fred Barman, an entertainment industry business manager based in Beverly Hills with clients such as singer Mel Torme and actor Peter Graves, had begun to manage Navratilova's career. Prior to Wimbledon that year, she asked Barman to make arrangements for her entire family to come to the U.S. embassy after Wimbledon and seek asylum. "But then we decided not to," said Navratilova. "We started to wonder how my dad was going to make a living and what would happen if something happened to me."

Then came the snap of the leash. Months earlier, a Communist involved in the leadership of Czech tennis had said, "We'll clip Martina's wings." Vera Sukova, coach of the national team, informed Navratilova that it had been decided she should not play an upcoming tournament. Navratilova's request for an exit permit to America to play the US Open was also initially denied. But Kodes, her father and an official named Stanislav Chvatal all went to bat on Navratilova's behalf and at last her trip was approved.

It was clear, though, that the time to leave had come. The night before flying west, Navratilova walked with her father on a road near a river. No matter what we say to you once you've gone, he said, under no circumstances should you come back. With one suitcase and four racquets, Navratilova flew towards freedom.

"It was very simple," she said. "I just wanted to play tennis. It wasn't a job. It was an ambition. I knew I could make money at it. I was 18 - old enough to think I could do it, young enough not to consider the consequences."

Forty years later, Navratilova pauses, begins to cry and is, for a few moments, speechless. Then: "You don't think when you're that age. You're clueless. I always had this confidence."

On Friday, September 5, 1975, Navratilova lost to Chris Evert in the semifinals of the US Open, held at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York. Barman had earlier contacted the Immigration and Naturalization Service to arrange for Navratilova's defection. His daughter Shari, a fellow pro and friend of Navratilova's, recalled that, "It was pretty tense, very hush-hush. But let's face it: There was no way Martina was going to be dictated to by the Czech government."

That Friday evening, there were several interviews with government officials, handled in a tidy, efficient manner. At 10:30 p.m., Navratilova returned to her room at the Roosevelt Hotel.

The next morning was when the stuff hit the fan.

CBS News contacted Navratilova to request an interview. Figuring it was all about tennis, she agreed to conduct it at the tournament later that day. But five minutes later came a call from Vera Sukova asking, "Why did you do it?"

There had been a leak to the Washington Post. Navratilova contacted Barman, who in turn contacted the public relations director for the Virginia Slims tour, Jeanie Brinkman. "The story was out," Brinkman told me, "so it was time to let everybody know." Brinkman arranged a press conference and shortly entered a cab with Navratilova and another pro, Rosie Casals. The driver asked if they'd heard about the Czech girl who was defecting.

Amid dozens of cameras and microphones, Navratilova repeated a simple message: "I wanted my freedom."

That evening, Navratilova dined with Brinkman and Fred Barman in Greenwich Village. Joked the bartender, a friend of Brinkman's, "Hey, Brinkman, the KGB were just here looking for you." Navratilova ran out of the restaurant and spent the next two days in Brinkman's apartment. Said Brinkman, "I had a call from the FBI saying that my phone was tapped and that there was a car in front of my apartment if I needed anything. It was very much out of a spy novel."

Said Navratilova, "I knew I would land on my feet."

There would be five years of life as a stateless person, requiring complicated bureaucratic procedures whenever Navratilova traveled. Flying east from Europe to Japan, Navratilova would create a route certain not to be over Soviet airspace. There she was, at the head of the line in the revolution that would eventually find hundreds of Eastern Europeans pervading the ranks of professional tennis. There would be joyful wins and tearful losses, quite often at the US Open. There would be her starting another revolution in fitness, Navratilova the first tennis player to embrace all the cross-training and nutritional rituals that are now standard. There would be a long reign atop the world, Navratilova winning 18 Grand Slam singles titles, including a record nine at Wimbledon. There would be family reunions. There would be the exile's return, Navratilova back in Prague in 1986 to compete in an international team event, the Fed Cup. There would be a relentless political consciousness, a profound belief in democracy that sees Navratilova engaged with causes and immersed in reading about everything from presidential politics to environmental issues. "I've always been a rebel," she said, "always curious about the world around me."

As this year's US Open gets underway, Navratilova will most likely be paying attention to the here and now, devoting herself primarily to her work broadcasting matches for Tennis Channel. Count on her to also send out dozens of tweets, perhaps even one on that longstanding US Open suite-holder, Donald Trump.

But surely, for a moment on Saturday, September 5, she'll look back at an 18-year-old who made a momentous decision that might well have been one cause of the end of the Cold War and the spread of democracy. That fall of 1975, once settled in the US, Navratilova based herself at the Barman's Beverly Hills home and rewarded herself by purchasing a silver Mercedes 450SL. The license plate made a simple statement: "X-CZECH."