Martina Navratilova arrived here,the tournament where she won nine singles titles,free in every sense. Free of cancer. Free of the treatments she had before,during and after the French Open. Free to resume the life the diagnosis and only slightly interrupted.
Last week,she sat at a back booth inside a Wimbledon Village restaurant,an hour or so after hosting a question-and-answer session about her plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in December for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. Asked how beating cancer and climbing mountains fit her overall life narrative tennis legend,gay-rights activist,celebrity endorser,philanthropist and so on Navratilova said,I always win.
She hit rock bottom the first day. Nothing else came close. Navratilova found out in February that she had noninvasive breast cancer. Navratilova calls this good cancer, but she found no good in the immediate diagnosis. She broke her right wrist in January playing hockey,lost a tooth in early February on an airplane,then received the call telling her she had cancer while at home alone. This is going to be a hell of a year, she thought.
The previous two years had been filled with other difficulties. Her mother died. Her former lover filed a lawsuit. And then that word: cancer. It was not life-threatening,but it was threatening nonetheless.
For a week,Navratilova barely moved. She felt anger,shock. She asked herself the question many people ask,starting with why and ending with me.
Life stopped. It felt like you were a prisoner in your own body, Navratilova said. And that was a new experience for me. It was not like spraining your ankle,you know.
But Navratilova canceled just one event a scheduled trip to visit her sister between the French Open and Wimbledon. Everything else went on normal. Even the climbing trip remained on the itinerary. Letters poured in,thousands of cards and text messages. Many,surprisingly,from men. Jimmy Connors,her broadcasting partner,reached out. So did Jim Courier.
Some moments proved more unexpected. Like the boy,perhaps 12,who slipped Navratilova a note at an exhibition. I had cancer,it read,in part. Youre going to beat this.
Worry? Navratilova said her sister worried enough for everyone,and across the room at the restaurant,Barbara Delaney,Navratilovas close friend and a manager of sorts,yelled: She never worries! Ever!
Navratilova,53,once won singles,doubles and mixed doubles championships at the same US Open. She attacked radiation and French Open commentary the same way,and even found time to win the senior doubles title with Jana Novotna.
Before the tennis started at French Open last month,doctors traced their target on Navratilovas skin with blue ink. For six weeks,they zapped it,no more than two minutes at a time. The fourth week was the most painful and intense. The radiation left Navratilova sore,tired and slightly depressed. In the senior doubles final,she had a hard time seeing the ball.
On her final day of radiation,Navratilova said she felt like jumping up and announcing she was finished. Instead,she brought autographed tennis balls to the staff,finished the radiation and walked outside. Her first word? Freedom,which she thinks she shouted. Her next and final check-up is scheduled for mid-August.
Free of cancer,free of radiation,she arrived here somewhat sick of the attention,ready to move forward and,if all goes well,up a mountain by years end. She went after cancer the way she played tennis,and she says she will go up Mount Kilimanjaro the same way. You never go on the court thinking,you know,I want to lose, she said.