June 04, 1984 12:00 PM

For years Martina Navratilova carried her potential around like a curse. She possessed not only the talent to become the world’s No. 1 woman tennis player, but also a maddening inability to live up to her promise. Then in September 1982 when she was upset in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, Navratilova arrived at a turning point. On the recommendation of an Italian tennis-playing pal, she contacted Dr. Robert Haas, 35, a Miami-based nutritionist, who proposed a radical change in her diet. The Czechoslovakian-born star was skeptical but willing to gamble. “I had nothing to lose,” she recalls. Nothing, that is, but habitual indulgences like pigging out on German noodles and Peking duck. “Martina was always a good player, but her career was erratic,” says Haas. “She felt she trained hard, but there was some element missing. Her own good sense told her it was probably diet.”

As a first step in turning Navratilova into his Wonder Woman, Haas fed information on her blood chemistry, favorite foods and training routines into his phalanx of computers to come up with a personalized profile and diet. “After two days of Haas’ regimen, I was dying,” says Navratilova. “There was no butter or margarine. Everything tasted bland.” Two weeks later she was converted. “She called to say she wanted to sign me up exclusively—my services wouldn’t be available to other women in tennis,” says Haas. Since then, Navratilova has become nearly unstoppable, winning 104 of her last 106 tournaments.

Haas hasn’t been doing badly himself. His how-to-do-it book, Eat to Win (Rawson, $14.95), has topped the bestseller lists for eight weeks. His healthy dose of name-dropping—Haas says he has counseled Stan Smith, swimmers James and Jonathan DiDonato and basketball star Nancy Lieberman—combined with high seriousness and common-sense diets—has made him a winner with weekend athletes.

“There is no magic pill,” cautions Haas, but the proper diet can improve an athlete’s performance, prevent injuries, facilitate healing and extend a player’s career—even perk up a flaccid sex life. The diet will also remove excess weight, says Haas, but that is incidental. “The diet gives a player the ability to handle stress,” he explains. “Health is the bottom line.”

Basically Haas’ winning formula involves keeping fats and oils to a minimum, decreasing protein and increasing complex carbohydrates such as pasta, cereals and vegetables—and lots of water. “I told Jimmy Connors to drink water before, during and after each match,” says Haas. “The second thing I advised him was to replace his big steak dinner before a big match with spaghetti, rice, bread—all the complex carbohydrates.” Before prescribing a specific regimen, Haas insists on an analysis of an individual’s blood chemistry to determine levels of cholesterol, sugar, fats and uric acid in order to set the proper dietary balance. “You establish eating patterns,” he notes, “that will remain with you throughout your life.”

Born in New York City, Haas grew up in Miami where his father owned a Burger King franchise. “I was really into wrestling and weight lifting,” says Haas, who went on to earn a degree in criminology at Florida State. His interest in nutrition dates from 1970 when he reported to his draft board for a pre-induction physical and was told he had a life-threatening case of high blood pressure. “I stood 5 foot 10 and weighed 195 pounds,” he recalls. “My coaches always said eat lots of eggs and meat, and that’s what I did.” Soon after, Haas began graduate studies in nutrition at Florida State. (He has since earned a Ph.D. from Columbia Pacific University in San Rafael, Calif.)

At Florida State he discovered that computers were a tool for solving the most practical nutritional problems. “We were assigned a problem to work up a diet that would provide 100 percent of the U.S. recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals at 1,500 calories, 1,800 calories and 2,400 calories,” he explains. “Working with calculators, it would take weeks. But by recording the calorie counts and nutritional values of foods into the school’s mainframe [computer] we could generate not just three diets, but hundreds of thousands of diets to solve the problem.”

Meanwhile, as his own weight dropped to 140 pounds and his hypertension vanished, his tennis game improved dramatically. “Tennis players and friends saw the improvement,” he says, “and began asking advice.” Haas was launched on his career.

A bachelor and a computer junkie, he now lives in Miami with his golden retriever, Krypto, and $35,000 worth of electronic gear. For exercise he runs, bicycles and plays tennis, and often whips up “sweets” for his clients. “It’s not all pasta and vegetables,” says Navratilova. “He makes energy bars and chocolate cakes [actually made from carob] that are just great.

“People who knew me in my heavier days,” Navratilova has noted, “are amazed to watch me dining on piles of pasta, potatoes, rice and bread while still maintaining my exceptionally low 10 percent body fat.” And she adds, “A recent blood chemistry analysis showed that my blood profile resembles that of a 10-year-old girl.”

That is the way it should be, says Haas, who argues: “Think about the best game you ever had in your life. That was you at your level of peak performance, with maximum energy, stamina and endurance. That’s the way it can be, again and again.”

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