Question: Which tennis great do you think would chose these three tracks of music among their favourites - Bad Romance by Lady Gaga, Bizet’s L’armour est un oiseau rebelle as sung by Maria Callas with the Orchestra of the National Theatre of the Opera in Paris, and Dancing Queen by Abba?
Answer: Martina Navratilova, who appeared as this week's castaway in BBC Radio 4’s long-running Desert Island Discs programme.
Originally devised and presented by Roy Plomley, each week a guest (“castaway”) is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item for their imaginary stay on the island, while discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices. Presenter Kirsty Young has a rich seam to mine in the extraordinary career of Navratilova, who as a child was told by her father that she had a ‘golden arm’ and that she would win Wimbledon. The rest is history, as they say, as she went on to win 59 Grand Slam titles (her last just a few weeks short of her 50th birthday) and to be described (by Billie-Jean King) as “the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles player who's ever lived.”
The chat with Young is fascinating: Martina recalls her first singles win in 1978 and her distress that her parents weren’t there to see it. She didn’t even know if they were aware that she was playing. She reflects on her competitive/perfectionist nature and how she felt when it was time for the inevitable ‘passing of the torch’ as she was beaten in the 1988 Wimbledon final by Steffi Graf.
Always one to wear her heart on her sleeve, she is characteristically candid in all her recollections: how she slept like a baby before a big tournament, how she got on with the other players on the circuit, how relaxed pro tennis was then. Her description of how she saw her mother again in 1979 after the intervention of the Duchess of Kent is very moving, as is her recollection of how her grandmother, visiting her in the United States, became mesmerised by the TV remote control. She talks about being ‘outed’; and how, in 2010, a breast cancer diagnosis taught her not to ‘sweat the small stuff’ in life.
For years Navratilova lived solely for tennis and after retiring had to re-evaluate her life. “Tennis really was a total commitment. You didn't have much time for anything else. So, when I quit, I was going through something emotionally that most people go through when they're 18, 20 years old - really having the time for personal relationships, developing friendships and taking the time with everybody. I think I've caught up by now!”
Off court, her life has been equally eventful. She grew up in the mountains of communist Czechoslovakia. She talks about her parents’ divorce and how, even as a girl, she was a tomboy and a powerful tennis player. As a teenager, she threw rocks as the Soviet tanks rolled in. Her first trip to the west came when she was 13 and playing in a tournament to Germany. Tennis offered a way to see the world. The story of her defection to the US when she was 18 years old – leaving without telling her mother because she knew it would upset her – still moves her to tears.
Her desert island book? Ayn Rand's Fountainhead - about ambitions, power, gold and love – which tells the story of Howard Roark, a brilliant architect who dares to stand alone against the hostility of second-hand souls.
Luxury item? Her own pillow.