Martina Navratilova: 'I want to save lives'

Martina Navratilova's breast cancer revelation is the latest in a long line of very public battles. She tells Julie Bindel why she is speaking out

Thirty seconds after meeting Martina Navratilova, she is suggesting I might be a stalker. As I arrive for the interview, shake that famous left hand and set up my voice recorder, I realise I have somehow lost its battery. To fill in precious time, I make what I think is polite small talk: "Martina, I can't tell you how jealous my friends are about me meeting you . . . I consider it worthwhile becoming a journalist just to meet you."

Laughing, Navratilova tells me I could just have pretended and "snuck in" anyway – before pulling herself together and making the "You might turn out to be a stalker" remark.

Having landed at Heathrow only a few hours earlier, she then details her gruelling schedule over the last five days, consisting of scores of interviews, several flights, and missed nights' sleep. (I cannot, unfortunately, recall any more detail: it is hard to concentrate while emptying the contents of a shoulder bag over your hero's bed, as she watches with a mixture of amusement and concern.)

Navratilova, of course, has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer – yet she appears upbeat and seems buzzing with health. She is also beautiful – more so than she appears on TV or in photographs. Her eyes are sometimes green, sometimes hazel, and her skin looks like it belongs to a much younger woman.

So what was behind her decision to go public with the illness? "I want to save lives by telling women to go for the test, and be vigilant, but there is a cost to me, for sure. Last week I did 20 interviews straight and the following evening, when I played tennis, I was exhausted – but it was emotional, not physical, exhaustion.

"I need to pace myself – I don't want [the illness] coming back because I got so stressed trying to raise awareness. Sometimes things bunch up and get out of control, as it has this week, but I have a vacation coming."

Now that Navratilova has gone public, she is bound to be contacted by women asking for support. How does she feel about that?

"I will do it, of course, but it's not easy. I spoke to Robin Roberts, the anchor on Good Morning America, who is a really good friend of mine. She had breast cancer three years ago, and had chemo and the works. I asked her how she deals with it, and she admitted the problem is you can't get away from it. Doing all these interviews, I get asked, 'How did you feel when you found out? How do you feel now?' – you can't escape it."

The world's most famous out lesbian, the most successful female tennis player of all time, is in the UK at the invitation of the gay rights organisation Stonewall. Last night, she delivered the keynote speech at its annual dinner and auction, alongside Gareth Thomas, the first out professional rugby player. This year's theme is homophobia in sport, an issue Navratilova knows a lot about.

"It hardly occurs to anyone that sportsmen are gay," she says, "but with women they almost have to prove they are straight. A journalist would never dare ask a male athlete, unless they were a figure skater, 'Are you gay?' But it is OK to ask a female tennis player."

I ask what can be done to encourage more sporting icons to come out. "Change has to come from the top. They don't allow antisemitic rants or whatever racist bullshit to be shouted from the stands, and they should not allow the homophobic stuff – but it seems like it is zero tolerance of all other bigoted crap, and 95% tolerance of anti-gay stuff."

However, the UK, she says, is "way ahead" of the US in tackling homophobia. We talk about the fact that Stonewall has support from the three main political parties, and she tells me she is "amazed . . . It would never happen in the States. The Republicans treat us like lepers."

I tell her how important her coming out in 1981 was for lesbians at the time. She was the first decent role model we had, and remains one of a chosen few almost three decades later. Does it feel like a responsibility?

"Of course it is. I am a role model for kids who look up to me, and to the game. [In all, Navratilova has won nine Wimbledon singles titles amid a mind-boggling total of 59 grand slam titles.] But then I do something that the press picks up on, and straight people say, 'Oh, that's what those dykes are like.'"

It is true that Navratilova seems to have been in the press as much for her colourful affairs with women as she has for her tennis. Her third serious relationship (we don't know for sure who the previous two were), with the novelist Rita Mae Brown, ended dramatically in 1981. The story goes that as Navratilova gathered her things to pack in her car, Brown saw her handgun lying on the floor, where it had been dropped.

"I needed something to throw and, not realising it was loaded, threw it at the car," Brown admitted at the time. The gun went off and shattered the rear window, missing Navratilova by inches.

Next came former basketball player Nancy Lieberman, and then Judy Nelson – millions of Americans watched the televised court battle that ensued after that breakup. Nelson sued Navratilova for half her earnings in one of the first "palimony" cases, arguing that she had enabled the tennis star to focus on winning while she stayed at home being the good wife. The case was eventually settled out of court.

Is it any wonder so few professional sportspeople come out with this kind of press scrutiny? "There have been a few times I wanted to do something and chose not to, because I don't want to read about it in the paper the next day," Navratilova admits. "And anyway, it would not be portrayed as what really happened."

So who are the top female players in the closet? There are, she says, no lesbian players in the top 10 – there is nobody to come out. "But where are the gay guys? I want to say: 'Hello! How is it going to hurt you? Nobody is going to stop you playing. If you are good enough, you get to play.'"

So it's cowardice? "Yeah, it is. But at the same time, coming out to the world is not easy. If I have a girlfriend, then I don't want to come out to the world – I wanna introduce her to my friends and family and see how it goes, you know? It is not because I am hiding."

I ask if Navratilova is involved in a relationship at present, and she laughs and looks, for the first time, a little shy. "Kind of. It's a work in progress.

"Barb is my manager," she adds, "and we have been photographed together, so I am sure some people think that we are together." On cue, Barb appears with a black coffee, muttering: "You should be so lucky." Navratilova continues unabashed: "There is a straight friend of mine in Aspen who I've been out with in public a couple of times and I told her, 'Be prepared, people will talk.'"

With so few female celebrities being openly gay, Navratilova must have felt alone in the wilderness – yet she is reluctant to criticise other people's choices, only the reaction to those figures who have followed her lead.

"Ellen DeGeneres [the actor and comedian who came out in 1997 on The Oprah Winfrey Show] comes out, which is fabulous, and then the gay groups start criticising her, saying she doesn't do anything else. And I want to say, 'What the fuck do you expect?' She has come out and she is mainstream, so she has done more than most. I wanna say, 'She does not owe you one damn thing any more. Just be glad she came out when so many haven't.' That's brave. That's enough."

Is she a feminist? "Of course! How can a woman not be? If a woman says she is not, I say to her, 'So you want to be paid just 70% of what the guys are for the same job?' Then she says no, and I say, 'So you're a feminist.' Feminism is about equal rights, no more. I just don't want it to be an issue. Full stop. Period. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go."

What is it that made her such a political person? "I think, originally, it came from being told what to do and what I was supposed to be while growing up in a communist country." (Navratilova defected from Czechoslovakia to the US in 1975, but visits her sister and her two children there often.) "I have always had a disdain for authority and stupid rules that make no sense, and I still do. I always question authority – always have, always will."

Partly because of this, Navratilova has experienced more than her fair share of hostility from the crowds. I recall one Wimbledon when she played Chris Evert, the heterosexual, feminine, all-American girl who seemed such a sharp contrast to Navratilova's ambiguous sexuality, big muscles and eastern-European scowl.

"Oh yes," she says, "It was tough. If I complained about a line call, ooh they got on my case immediately. It didn't take much. Imagine them booing Federer or Nadal, or any guy really, if they complained? No frickin' way."

Yet now, she laughs, "I can't do anything wrong. Over here [in the UK], I could run for office and win. People are like, 'Oh, Martina!' I have a whole new class of fans I didn't know I had." (Some, of course, the result of her 2008 appearance on I'm a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here!)

Out of the blue, she asks, sort-of tongue-in-cheek (but with Navratilova you never can tell), "Say, when am I gonna get knighted or whatever it is?" Would she like to be Lady Martina, then? "Who wouldn't?"

Increasingly, Navratilova enjoys spending time in Europe. "I like the pace here. It's just a little bit calmer than in the States – a bit more civilised and progressive. In the States, it feels like we are going backwards."

Will she be coming to London for the Olympics? "I expect to be here, but London is too hot in the summer. Maybe I'll go to Cornwall. They have this fabulous organic garden down there, with 27 types of potatoes and eight different kinds of lima beans. I love eating."

I have used up more than my allotted time, and Barb appears, tapping her watch. CNN are waiting downstairs, and there are back-to-back appointments for the rest of the day. But Navratilova continues talking.

In the final few minutes, I learn her opinions on healthcare ("Do you know that my breast-cancer treatment would cost me $50,000 without insurance? People lose their houses or die"); the death penalty ("They are executing people who are mentally ill"); and that she is climbing Kilimanjaro for a children's sports charity in December.

She has been up all night, yet neither looks nor sounds tired. Wimbledon is clearly a poorer place without her – but talking to this formidable agitator leaves me with the distinct impression that her best work is still to come.


Julie Bindel

The GuardianTramp

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