In honor of Women’s History Month, we continue to recognize the economic, cultural, political, and social contributions of influential immigrant and refugee women who’ve helped shape the vibrant tapestry of America. Today we spotlight Czech-American Tennis superstar, and civil rights advocate, Martina Navratilova
Czech-American Tennis superstar Martina Navratilova was one of the world’s top tennis players in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1956, she was born Martina Šubertová in Prague. Following her parents’ divorce when she was just three years old, her stepfather Mirek Navrátil became her first tennis coach. Martina would take on his last name moving forward, albeit changing it just a smidge by adding the feminine suffix “ova” to the tail end. She would win the Czechoslovakia National Tennis Championship at age 15. One year later, Martina turned pro and started competing in the U.S.
By 1975, the struggles of living under Soviet Communist control forced Navratilova to defect permanently to the United States, a move that cut the teenage phenom off from her family for years. The U.S. granted her political asylum and temporary residence before granting her American citizenship in 1981.
The difficult decision to leave her native country ultimately vaulted her into international stardom after she defeated iconic American Chris Everett in 1978 to win her first Grand Slam tournament at Wimbledon. She defended that title the following year. Navratilova continued her excellence, winning 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 31 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles, and another 10 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. She’s won the most Grand Slam victories in Tennis’ Open Era, male or female. Navratilova retired in 2006, after becoming the oldest major champion in history, just one month shy of her 50th birthday.
Navratilova has also been a fierce advocate for LGBTQ and civil rights. In 1981, shortly after she defected from her native country and at the peak of her career, Martina came out of the closet. Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, once described what the move meant for the LGBTQ community:
“Martina was the first legitimate superstar who literally came out while she was a superstar,” Lopiano said. “She exploded the barrier by putting it on the table. She basically said this part of my life doesn’t have anything to do with me as a tennis player. Judge me for who I am.”
But the decision did not come without a cost. Navratilova says she believes she has lost significant earnings and endorsement deals after going public.
Post-retirement Martina Navratilova has been involved with several charities that advocate for animal rights, underprivileged children, and LGBTQ rights. In 2000, she received the National Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest gay and lesbian activist group.