Martina Navratilova is a tennis legend who racked up 167 singles titles and 18 majors over the course of her illustrious career and is one of the most dominant players to ever represent the United States. However, she wasn’t always associated with the Stars and Stripes.
Navratilova was born in Prague in 1966 when the state then known as “Czechoslovakia” was still under the control of the Soviet Union. She took up tennis at the age of four, and after spending a few years honing her skills on a concrete wall near her home, she set her sights on the courts she’d eventually conquer.
In 1972, the phenom won a national title in her homeland and soon found herself competing in tournaments around the world. In 1973, she played at the French Open for the first time at the age of 16 and managed to make it all the way to the quarterfinals, and the following year, she earned the first of her many victories as a pro.
Navratilova really announced her grand arrival in 1975, as she became impossible to ignore after (respectively) losing to Evonne Goolagong and Chris Evert in the championship matches at the Australian and French Open.
Later that year, she headed to New York City to compete in the U.S. Open, and while she fell to Evert yet again, it was arguably the most significant tournament of her career thanks to what unfolded after she was eliminated.
Martina Navratilova defected from the Soviet Union after losing in the U.S. Open in 1975
Navratilova arrived in the United States while the Cold War was in full swing, and when she was playing abroad, she was under the watchful eye of a Czechoslovakian coach who also served as her handler.
She’d grown up under communist rule and had a front-row seat to the widespread protests known as the “Prague Spring.” She was constantly subjected to Soviet propaganda and the state’s many restrictions on personal expression while growing up, and when she wanted to compete in a capitalist country, she had to deal with plenty of bureaucratic red tape in order to obtain the required visa.
Navratilova says that when she did get permission to travel, she was constantly scrutinized over her behavior and needed to take care to avoid being too “friendly” with foreign players in order to avoid being subjected to retribution at home. That was just one of many reasons she became increasingly disillusioned with her native land, and she subsequently hatched a plan to leave it behind for America ahead of the U.S. Open in 1975.
She understandably did what she could to keep things under wraps; her father was the only person in her family who was aware of the impending defection, and the only other people who were brought into the loop were her agent (who helped arrange the decampment), Evert, Billie Jean King.
The plot was fairly straightforward: Navratilova planned to compete for as long as she could in the U.S. Open and then sneak off to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Manhattan to apply for political asylum once she was eliminated (which happened when she lost to Evert—the eventual champion—in the quarterfinals).
On the evening of September 5, 1975, Navratilova headed to the immigration center and spent a few hours filling out the required paperwork and fielding questions about her nonexistent ties to the Communist Party.
She headed back to her hotel, and when she woke up the following morning, “all hell broke loose” thanks to a report that had been published in The Washington Post that announced her defection to the world (she held a press conference explaining her decision later that day).
Navratilova said she was followed by someone affiliated with the Czechoslovakian government for a couple of weeks and that her parents lost their jobs back home, and while she was stripped of her citizenship (which was later restored) after obtaining her green card, she said she (and her family) never really experienced any major repercussions.
She went on to secure her American citizenship in 1981, and in 2004, she represented the United States at the Summer Olympics for the first (and only) time after teaming up with Lisa Raymond for the women’s doubles competition.