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Original Issue


First things first.

Question: Does Martina Navratilova talk about her sexual preference(s) in her new book, Martina, written with George Vecsey (Alfred A. Knopf, $16.95)?

Answer: Yes.

Q: What does she say?

A: Martina says she is bisexual.

Q: Will you give us a few juicy tidbits so we'll be tempted to pay that $16.95 for more?

A: No. Martina insists—as did Billie Jean King before her—that her sexual preferences and behavior are her private business. If it puzzles you why, despite their firm belief in privacy, both women wrote books in which they discussed their preferences, then you'll have to ask them for answers.

All of this is a great pity, because the book Martina contains some excellent, immensely readable material. Unfortunately, it is obscured by the same dull stuff that other tennis champions have been impelled to include in their "life stories" because they, too, have spent 90% of their waking hours hitting or planning to hit a ball over a net and don't really know enough about anything else to talk about it sensibly. When they try, they mostly sound like the immature grown-ups they are and purveyors of dime-store philosophy. The books are padded with scores and references to insignificant matches in the early rounds of tournaments that weren't worth being reported when they took place, let alone being resurrected now.

Martina has several advantages over the likes of Chris Evert Lloyd and John McEnroe, for example, in writing about her 20-odd years spent largely on a tennis court. Born in 1956, she grew up in a small village outside of Prague, and her description of the years before and after the Russians invaded the country in 1968 is both compelling and invaluable for any outsider. It may owe as much to Vecsey's skill as a writer as it does to her observations, but no matter. She spends few words on political affairs but portrays the everyday way of life that changed in 1968, and what took its place, in highly personal and effective detail. You could search libraries and find nothing like it.

Her talent for tennis brought her the opportunity to defect to the West. What such a step entails has rarely been put so well, and certainly not by an athlete. In an earlier chapter—the best written, most touching in the book—Martina tells of her relationship with her grandmother; the decision she had to make might well prevent her from ever again seeing this woman who occupied such a significant place in her life—to say nothing of the rest of her immediate family. Once she made the decision, of course, her real problems began.

Martina had a long love affair with American junk food (that almost wrecked her career)—and with cars. At one point she owned a Toyota Supra, a Pontiac J, a 733 BMW, a silver Mercedes, a Porsche 928, a 1965 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and a 1976 Corniche convertible. And it seemed as though she was buying a new home in a different part of the country every other day, probably just for garages to hold the above.

She was also playing some of the best tennis ever seen, and getting coaching advice ranging from George Parma's in Czechoslovakia—"Ordinary shots are what make a player"—to the shrill exhortations of Nancy Lieberman. Navratilova's sharp comments on the differing priorities of the men and women players, and the pleasanter atmosphere among the latter, are surely correct. Her accounts of the dozens of matches with Chris Evert Lloyd, and their relationship, are a model of fairness and generosity, though one wishes she would stop attributing some defeats to physical problems or her "private" life going to pieces. How does she know what problems her opponents are experiencing? How does she know what their views of privacy cover? Furthermore, she contradicts such cause-and-effect reasoning. Before she won her fourth Wimbledon in 1983 by beating Andrea Jaeger love and three, she had a shoving and screaming battle with Lieberman until 2 a.m. that left her "physically and emotionally drained."

Yes, Martina tells about that, too. She carefully lists all the good reasons why she entered each of her liaisons, and, later, all the good reasons why she ended them—just so nobody's feelings would be hurt. Oh well.