‘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

Hindustan Times (Patna) - - SPORT - Deepti Pat­ward­han sports­desk@hin­dus­tan­times.com

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.

FIGHT­ING SPIRIT

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.

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