A woman of 53 recently diagnosed as having breast cancer might reasonably be expected to take it easy, slow down, take stock.
Not Martina Navratilova. In the past couple of weeks she has been to Minneapolis, Atlanta, New York, Hawaii, London and Paris; she has also competed in a triathlon, played ice-hockey, and played Lindsay Davenport in an exhibition tennis match.
Somewhere in the middle of this frenetic schedule, she had a lumpectomy. Soon she will undergo radiation treatment. But her lifestyle will not change. “I'll eat a little less fruit because cancer loves sugar,” she said. “But you need to be active during radiation.”
Sure, but there is ordinary active and Martina active. I catch up with her — no easy task — in a tough, working-class area of east London.
It is the day after her speech to the gay rights organisation Stonewall, who invited her to Britain, and now she is embracing a different cause, representing the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation at a project in Woolwich called Fight For Peace, where youngsters are taught self-discipline through boxing and martial arts. The indefatigable Navratilova takes her causes seriously. In December she will lead a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for Laureus. If zest for life were enough to zap cancer, she wouldn't need the radiation.
But she does. She was at home in Aspen, Colorado, when she got the results of her tests. “When I heard ‘positive’, it was a split second before I realised that positive was a bad thing,” she said. “I was told that I would need either a mastectomy or a lumpectomy, either chemotherapy or radiation, and I'm, like, ‘Jesus’. That's when I cried, for about a minute. Then I'm like, ‘ok, what do we do? Let's put the wheels in motion.’”
She knew how shocking the news would be to a world that sees her as the very embodiment of fitness.
“I won my last Grand Slam title one month short of my 50th birthday,” she added. “I'm the poster child for health and fitness. But it just goes to show that cancer doesn't pick according to that. Otherwise I'd live to be 200.” A short laugh. “Which some people might be upset by.” Characteristically, she made her condition public in the hope that other women might benefit.
“A lot of people don't go for these mammograms because they're scared they'll find something,” she added. “I'm like, if there's something there I want to know now, not a year from now. The lumpectomy took it all out, but now I need radiation to ensure it won't come back, and mammograms every six months.
“If it does come back you'll hear about it, but I don't need to chronicle it any more. I have already gotten so many emails and Facebook posts from people saying ‘you reminded me I need to go (for a check-up).’ That's very gratifying.”
And so cancer awareness joins all the other ‘awarenesses’ that Navratilova has used her colossal fame, and not a little of her huge fortune, to promote.
</>\[Michael McCready\]Has sport reached anything like its potential as a force for good?
“There is always more to do, but it's a great tool for change,” said Navratilova. “Sport is always ahead of where the laws are, where politics and prejudices are. It has always bridged the gap between Jew and Muslim, black and white, straight and gay, religious and non-religious, Communist and capitalist, because as athletes we don't judge by those criteria. It's ‘how well does she hit a forehand?’ Or ‘how fast can he run?’ That's the beauty of sport.”
The 2006 US Open mixed-doubles title with Bob Bryan, was the 59th Grand Slam title of her career. If she were the game's benign dictator she would make fundamental changes.
“I'd have faster surfaces and one serve. That way we'd see more balls in play,” she added. “The serve, especially in the men's game, is way too influential. And the game in general is too skewed in favour of baseline play, because surfaces are slower and the rackets enable you to put so much spin on the ball.
“You don't have to pass people, you can just dip it at their feet, which means they have to volley up and that makes them a sitting duck. I can't serve and volley nowadays and I'm the greatest volleyer there was, so something's not right.”
In December, Martina Navratilova will be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. There are limited places to join her. For further information, visit: http://www.laureus.com/get-involved/mount-kilimanjaro-climb.