Navratilova's Not-So-Silent Partner Is Tough Coach Mike Estep
Martina Navratilova is leaning, palms down, on a courtside table at the Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth. After a torturous two-hour workout in 102-degree heat under a flat-out sun, her clothes are soaked, her face is ghostly and her arms are quivering with fatigue. The sight makes her coach, Mike Estep, very happy. “And you wonder why a player gets mad when the press comes in after a final and asks, ‘Did you expect it to be so easy?’ ” says Estep, 35, who is preparing Martina for this week’s U.S. Open. “They don’t understand what it takes to be a winner.”
Navratilova, 27, is unquestionably a winner—she has taken 224 of her last 229 matches and earned her fifth Wimbledon title in July. Navratilova so dominates her sport that Estep sees his job as not merely to keep her winning but to keep her playing her best, which he doesn’t believe most players on the women’s tour are currently doing. “The women are lazy—the practice courts at tournaments are never full,” says Estep.
Even Navratilova wasn’t always so diligent. For years she was known as a self-indulgent player who wasn’t living up to her talent. Her previous coach, Dr. Renee Richards, tried to change that. But in June 1983 after losing to Kathy Horvath in the French Open, Navratilova had a frosty parting of the ways with Richards. Two weeks later she hired Estep, a former teammate on the now-defunct Boston Lobsters of World Team Tennis. Estep, who had been a promising player at Rice University, competed on the men’s circuit for 10 years until injuries, and the fact that he had never risen above 86th in the rankings, convinced him late last year that he should quit. He has also spent time as a teaching pro at the Wimbledon Racquet Club near Houston and has dabbled in real estate.
When Martina beckoned, Estep threw himself into the job of making her, he says, “the most improved player in the world. Despite beating everybody in sight, she had areas she had to improve in, including topspin backhand, forehand volley and kick serve. She had to work hard on them.” He insisted that Martina hire him for 36 weeks a year, rather than the 20 she had planned, and he devised grueling daily workouts that added four hours of tennis and drills to the hour of wind sprints and weight training she does on her own. “I told her, ‘You and I are the same size,’ ” says Estep, who is 5’8″ and 150 pounds to Navratilova’s 5’7½” and 145. ” ‘What is it that makes me hit so much harder? There’s got to be some way to close that gap.’ ”
At the same time, Estep’s strength advantage—much of which, of course, is simply a physiological fact of life—benefits his pupil. Says Martina, “When I play against the girls, I never go to the limit because I know I don’t have to. But with Mike I go the whole nine yards all the time. If I started over again and I were playing just against guys, I’d be a much better player.”
The son of a Dallas phone company administrator, Estep first picked up a racket when he was 6. Even now his heart belongs to competition. “Coaching is just a job,” says Estep. “It’s like going to work from 9 to 5. There’s no comparison between being a player and being a coach.”
Still, it is a job he obviously enjoys. On the court the banter between the native Texan and the Czechoslovakian defector is good-natured but always purposeful. The night before matches they go over “dossiers”—checklists of strengths and weaknesses that Estep keeps on each of Martina’s likely opponents. And at least twice a week during tournaments, Martina, Mike and his wife, Barbara Hunter, a free-lance sports broadcaster, play bridge or dine out. Lately, the threesome has been joined by Judy Nelson, 39, the estranged wife of a Fort Worth doctor. Although Nelson’s appearance at Wimbledon made headlines in the British press, Navratilova, whose off-court life has made news since her dramatic 1975 defection from Czechoslovakia, showed no loss of concentration. “I almost think she thrives on controversy,” says Estep. “If she doesn’t, I’d like to see how well she’d play if she didn’t have the complications.”
With Navratilova, Estep also gets to indulge his desire to play. At Wimbledon this year he was Martina’s mixed doubles partner before they were eliminated in the quarterfinals. As coach and player, their teamwork has been even more impressive. Although Estep has said a friend once warned him that “if Martina loses once, you’ll be out like Renée,” Navratilova is giving him little cause to worry. “Mike has made me realize how good I am,” she says, “and made me believe in what I’m doing.”