The Art of Doing

How Tennis Legend Martina Navratilova Went from Good to Great

Photo Carol Newsom
Most of us strive to be the best at what we do, but even those with the greatest advantages don’t necessarily rise to the top and stay there—what makes the difference?

Born with incredible athleticism, by her late teens, Martina Navratilova was one of the top players in the world. But in her early twenties, Navratilova played with uncertain commitment and was prone to puzzling losses.

When we interviewed Navratilova for our book, she told us about a fateful meeting with Nancy Lieberman a one-time pro basketball player that changed the course of her career. At Lieberman’s urgings, Navratilova, who had previously practiced for about an hour a day, took up weight training to achieve peak conditioning, running and basketball to improve reach and footwork and began a daily four hour, on-court practice regimen. Navratilova told us,

“All that training improved my reaction time and speed. I could hit the ball harder. I could run just as hard at the end of a match as I did at the beginning.”

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At the time, this form of cross training was unheard of on the pro tennis circuit. Players hadn’t yet conceived of a physical regimen to achieve peak fitness. Because Navratilova was the only player training this way, she had a tremendous physical advantage, which allowed her to dominate the sport.

Once she began to win consistently, Navratilova told us, she “got religion.” She applied the same rigor to improving her diet as well as the mental, strategic and emotional aspects of her game. Navratilova went on to become one of the greatest tennis players ever, winning a record 59 Grand Slam titles in a career that spanned four decades.

What made the difference? Of course, it was the rigorous training that today is understood to be a necessary component of every elite athlete’s success. But just as with an innovative entrepreneur who creates a new business model, Navratilova had the self-awareness to recognize what was lacking in her game. With no precedent or model in her field, Navratilova had the creativity to evolve new ways of achieving her goals and the tenacity to carry through, which put her and kept her at the very top of her game.

We wonder, who is out there today, in tennis or any other sport, who will be tomorrow’s game changer?

Navratilova Records: Most singles title wins—for men or women (167), most singles match wins (1,442), longest match winning streak (74) and only player to win Grand Slam titles in four different decades.