I had other childhood heroes: the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg; the Jewish ACLU lawyers who endured endless attacks to defend the First Amendment free speech rights of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, Illinois, a town with numerous Holocaust survivors; and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose iconography was seared into my brain by my fixation with “All the President’s Men,” the book and subsequent film that chronicled their journalistic investigation of Watergate.
But Navratilova occupied a singular pedestal for me. She became one of the world’s most extraordinary and famous sports stars: Sports Illustrated ranked her as 19 on its list of the 20th Century’s Greatest Athletes, the second-highest woman behind Babe Zaharias, one spot behind Bill Russell, and one ahead of Ty Cobb. She won Wimbledon nine times (Serena Williams has won seven), with her last Grand Slam title earned one month shy of her 50th birthday, when she became the 2006 U.S. Open Mixed Doubles champion. That was her 59th Grand Slam title, the most ever in tennis history by any player.
Her rivalry with U.S. tennis star Chris Evert in the late 1970s and throughout the ’80s was one of the greatest sports rivalries of the last century, if not the single greatest. They played 80 times (with Navratilova winning 43), including 14 times in Grand Slam finals (where Navratilova won 10). Their matches — a dramatic clash in personalities, cultures, branding, and playing styles — were watched by millions of people around the world on NBC, CBS, the BBC, and other global corporate networks.
Though I obsessively watched Navratilova’s matches and lived and died with every point, her sports prowess was perhaps the least significant factor for her importance to my adolescence. Everything about Navratilova was defiant, individualistic, brave, trailblazing, and orthodoxy-busting: in retrospect, she was a classic existential hero, someone who refused to have her life constrained or identity suppressed by societal dictates.
Not only was she openly gay at a time when very few were, but she traveled the world with her then-wife Judy…