‘Lee and I are both instinctive’
MATCH POINT Be it on the tennis court or off it, Paes and Navratilova’s styles always blend seamlessly
MUMBAI: She had us at "hello". In India for a corporate motivational speech, Martina Navratil-ova walked in for a media interaction on Saturday evening in practical heels, a smart blue suit and a touch of make-up. Navratil-ova does not need the endorsement of her 59 Grand Slam titles; her aura is enough to grab you and keep your attention.
She is a tennis champion, but also one who has fought many battles in life, and won most of them. Most recent of which saw her beat cancer.
Close on her heels was Leander Paes: India's most decorated tennis player, with 13 Grand Slams (two of which came with Navratilova), and a long-time friend of Navratilova. Paes has recently turned into an actor, but even he didn't do a good job of hiding his awe, even as he sat shoulder to shoulder with the great Navratilova.
"I can't wait to see his movie," said Navratilova, 56, of her former partner's latest enterprise. "He's always been a pretty good actor on court!"
"His passion is there for all to see when he's on the court. He doesn't hide anything, there's no wall between the emotions and the audience. We are both instinctive and react the same way; I think that's why we clicked on the court.
"As sports persons we are entertainers. We have been preparing for the camera for most part of our lives!"
It's been 10 years since PaesNavratilova first featured on a Grand Slam trophy: 2003 Australian Open. An experience Paes describes as "magical".
"I remember after we won the final, Leander told me you've just made a billion people happy," recalls Navratilova. "Now that's pressure! I can't imagine how that must be. I was just glad he didn't tell me about it before the match."
Born in Czechoslovakia, Navratilova was stripped of her citizenship after she sought political asylum from the United States.
From battling weight issues as a teenager to being a fitness ambassador, overcoming archaic attitudes about homosexuality and defying age to keep playing till 50, Navratilova has conquered a whole spectrum of struggles. But she isn't broken. Not even close.
After being treated for breast cancer in 2010, in December the same year, Navratilova, still had the spirit to attempt climb- ing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
"Her passion for life is amazing," says Paes, who, himself 39, is learning the lessons of athletic longevity from Navratilova.
"I think Leander definitely has another Olympics in him," says Navratilova. "As long as he is passionate about the game he should continue. The thing is whether he can compartmentalise and channel his energy on it, because at the same time you are looking to do so many things and broaden you horizon."
Another thread that ties the two is their incredible record in doubles. Though Navratilova won 18 singles majors, she has 41 in mixed and women's doubles combined. And the secret, the American says, is in having someone to share the success in what is usually an individual, lonely sport.
"It is more immediate," she says. "During the match, there's a lot more pressure, because you are responsible for someone else. When you win you have someone to hug, you have someone to share that joy.
"Chris Evert and I were great rivals. But (in singles) when she'd win, I'd be sad and when I'd win, she'd be sad.
"I am so glad we played doubles together. For the first time, we were both able to experience the same exact thing and experience it together."
Even as she turns back the pages in her memory, Navratilova stops to throw light on how "easy" it is to be a professional tennis player, despite the allegedly long season and the constant travel.
"It's a piece of cake compared to what we went through," she says. "Our season was much longer, it finished in December and restarted in January. Nowadays players have diplomatic passports, which has made life so easy. Tennis has gone more global, and players need to travel more, but given that most of them travel in business class, and stay in the best hotels, it shouldn't be a problem."
It would take more than travel in cramped economy class as below-par accommodation to faze these two. Their playing styles did blend seamlessly to scythe through the mixed-doubles competition in 2003, but it’s their spirit of survival that defines them.