Big Macs and Big Money Lie Behind Martina's Decision to Defect

When Martina Navratilova, the mercurial Czech tennis star, announced last week that she had asked for asylum in the U.S., no one in professional tennis was surprised. What else could be expected from an 18-year-old who adores Big Macs, the Carpenters, faded blue jeans and huge paychecks, and who hated being told by her government when and where she could travel?

Her troubles with Prague began last spring when she deliberately overstayed her U.S. visa, issued specifically to allow her to compete on the indoor Virginia Slims circuit. Martina, second only to Chris Evert in world ranking, decided to enter a follow-up tournament in Florida. Czech authorities were angry and, according to Martina, when she finally returned, “They told me, ‘You have been corrupted—you are too American.’ They said to concentrate on European events and forget about America. ‘The more you’re there, the more you’ll like it.’ ”

Martina began to consider defecting. “I told my parents I might want to marry an American someday. Why shouldn’t I love someone and be with him?” she asks. “But meantime I couldn’t find an American to marry.”

Back home, her game deteriorated. “I couldn’t hit a ball because I didn’t think I’d ever get out again,” she says. Within a month, however, the government relented and let her play in the Italian and French Opens (she finished second to Chris Evert both times) and Wimbledon, where she made it to the semifinals. Inexplicably, her family was allowed to accompany her to London. (Her father, Mirek, an economist, and her mother, Jana, are official state tennis functionaries. Her sister, Jana, 12, is a player.) “I know everyone thought we were all going to defect then,” says Martina. “But my parents were against it, and I really hadn’t made up my mind.”

After Wimbledon she returned to the family home in Revnice, a suburb of Prague, where she became more and more depressed as the U.S. Open drew near. “I played in local tournaments and lost to a lot of players you’ll never hear of,” she says.

Jan Kodes, a Czech on the men’s pro tennis circuit, convinced authorities that Martina needed to play Forest Hills to maintain her world standing. On August 13 her visa came through. “I didn’t want to say anything until after the Open—it was distracting enough as it was. I didn’t even tell my best friends—Chris [who beat Martina in the semifinals], Billie Jean and Rosie Casals. I just asked my agent Fred Barman to file the necessary papers.” The story was leaked to a wire service. “I learned that I had officially defected when my Czech chaperone told me she had just heard it on the news.” Martina will live at Barman’s home in Beverly Hills until she buys a house, probably in Palm Springs.

Those close to Martina believe she has not yet fully understood the seriousness of her act. “I don’t think Martina is aware she may never see her family again,” says a friend. “She thinks America is Beverly Hills and Guccis.” Martina is confident there will be no reprisals against her family, but when asked about her grandfather’s reaction (“Oh, that little idiot, why did she do that?”), Martina choked back tears, then sobbed, “How else can I feel?”

The defector’s life has so far left a sour taste. “I’ve been traveling with bodyguards. I can’t carry my tennis rackets because I might be recognized, and I can’t even give my best friends my phone number. Some freedom.”

Related Articles