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By Blair Henley / Monday, October 7, 2013

Martina Navratilova had some of the most memorable battles in tennis history en route to capturing a record 59 Grand Slam titles, but perhaps her greatest challenge came with her cancer diagnosis in 2010. We caught up with her at Houston’s Nancy Owens Memorial Foundation Luncheon in support of the fight against breast cancer, where she spoke candidly about her experience to a crowd of nearly 1,000. Later she would talk to Tennis Now about her place in history, her workouts, Roger Federer and how she would fare in a match against Serena Williams.
The word “fight” is often used in conjunction with the word “cancer.” As someone who fought on the court match after match over the course of your career, do you think that helped you face your diagnosis and make your way to recovery?
There’s no doubt in my mind. As a tennis player you get knocked down a lot, and champions have to keep coming back until they get it right. It was the same with breast cancer. You just have to stay positive. It’s frustrating because you can’t rehab cancer; you can’t fix it, you can’t put ice on it and know that it’s going to get better. It was a shocking experience, but that background of staying positive definitely helped in the fight.  

I’m a big fan of your all-court game, but in your prime, would your style of play hold up against, say, Serena? Or would you have had to totally adjust your game style by changing your forehand grip or maybe coming to the net less?
I think I would have to mix it up a little more. You can’t just serve and volley on everything, but I only did that depending on who I played, depending on what surface I played on. Power never bothered me because the harder they hit it, the harder it comes back. I think Serena and I would have some great matches. If I can get her serve back, then I think I’d be alright. But the issue is how well she’s serving. They would have been fun matches to have. People ask me, “Do you think you can beat Serena Williams,” and I say, “Well, do you think Justine Henin can beat Serena Williams? And do you think I can beat Justine Henin?” Anyway, she’s a great champion, and she’s kicking butt now, big time.

Speaking of Serena, there’s talk about whether she is the greatest of all time. But I want you to toot your own horn for a minute. Where do you think you fall in that argument?
For me, it comes down to a body of work. I hold a lot of records, but so does Margaret Court, so does Steffi Graf. It’s hard to compare generations. I always said I’d like to be remembered as one of the all-time greats, and I’m there as is Margaret, as is Chris Evert and as is now Serena Williams.

Of course, I would have had to play differently, but so would Serena if she was playing in my time with wooden racquets. She wouldn’t have been able to take those swings. Champions adjust. I’m the only one who went from the wooden racquets to the metal. Chris Evert made the transition as well, and we managed. I would have to make adjustments, absolutely, but could I make them? I think so.

You’ve been able to segue into a successful broadcasting career, but you’re also a very opinionated person. Do you ever have to hold yourself back from saying what you’re really thinking as you commentate?  
For me, I’m really just analyzing the match. I sometimes hold my tongue on people’s behavior perhaps, but I do critique it in a way where I’m trying to make people see what they are doing wrong and what they can do better. It’s all about staying in the solution and teaching. I feel like I’m teaching tennis. I’m kind of telling them what I would want someone to tell me. I try to keep it positive, but of course, you have to point out mistakes. I love it. I really enjoy it. I don’t hold back much.

Just because you aren’t currently playing professional tennis doesn’t mean you eliminate the will to compete. So what do you do to get those competitive juices flowing these days? 
I’m competitive with myself, and I try to do the best with whatever it is that I’m doing. I learned to play hockey. I’ve skated since I was little. When I wanted to be a hockey player, I took lessons in stick handling and skating because I wanted to be better. Whatever it is that I do, I try to get advice from people who know what they’re doing, and that’s what it’s about – being the best tennis player I can be or being the best skater I can be or being the best woodworker that I can be.

The game has changed a lot, on and off the court, since your era. How would you like to see the game changed going forward, particularly on the women’s side?
Overall, I think it’s not just women. In men’s tennis, I would like for them to get away with the let. Just do away with the let court on the serve. Just play ball. It disrupts the sport more than it helps. Just say OK, in 2015 were going to do this, so people can start to practice that way. They do it in World Team Tennis, and it’s not a problem there. They’ve done it in college tennis. That would be a step in the right direction to speed up the sport. Also, [they need to] stick to the time rule in between points. They were much better about it at the US Open. Sometimes you have a long point, so you need more than 20 seconds in between points. But overall, just speed it up. Maybe limit how many bounces you can do before a serve.

And limit the noise that’s out there. Some of the women’s matches, [the noise] is all people talk about. I don’t want to lose the audience because they don’t like the noise. It’s a habit. There are some guys that are noisy, too, but it’s more of a problem on the women’s tour. I want to talk about how they are hitting the ball, not how much noise they are making. 

You’re one of the fittest players to ever play the game, and you still keep up with your fitness.  What do your workouts look like today?
I just tried this new one where you do stations for 40 seconds each, as many reps as you can, and then you rest for 20 seconds. It’s intense. I like intense workouts. I’ve started doing some sprints again. Long distance running is just not my cup of tea. I could play basketball, full court, 2 on 2, but anything over 100 meters is too far for me. I’ve also gotten into biking. I live in Miami now, and I ride through Key Biscayne, going past the courts all the time. I don’t really go to the gym. I play tennis about once a week, and I do yoga. I do yoga a couple of times a week, which I would highly recommend to tennis players. It’s such a closed sport, yoga really opens everything up and gives you flexibility. Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic are two of the most flexible players out there. It’s amazing. I would definitely recommend yoga to the everyday tennis player.

On a more serious note, the volume of the doping discussion has risen exponentially in the last year. Do you think doping is an issue in professional tennis?
It has to be a clean sport. I started learning more about doping after I retired. It’s easy to evade. There is stuff that can help tennis players, particularly in the endurance and recovery areas. They can train much harder, and then they have that confidence because they put in more hours. So the effect is mental even though there aren’t drugs for the mental side. So, you have to keep it as level a playing field as possible. I think that if people really do get caught cheating, the penalty needs to be severe. At the same time, when they catch someone, we treat people who [ingested something inadvertently] the same way as if they were trying to cheat. It’s obvious whether people are cheating or whether it’s some accident. It needs to be fair, but I have absolutely no patience or sympathy for cheaters.

As someone who played long after what some would have called your prime, do you sympathize with what Roger Federer is facing now from his critics and the media who think he should hang it up?
I don’t think people want to see champions have a slow [downward] spiral. I kind of went through it in a way. When you dominate as much as I did or as Roger did, anything less than that seems to be a step back. As long as he thinks he can still win a Slam, I would be the last person to say stop. If he thinks he can do it, and if he enjoys it, that’s all that matters. You just can’t believe the naysayers. I would have stopped back in the 70s if I believed what people were saying about me. I would have never had the 80s. The ball doesn’t know how old you are. If he can stay healthy and enjoy it, keep playing. We love to see him play.

So, Billie Jean had a pretty impressive birthday party this weekend in Las Vegas…
Yeah, but her birthday is not until November!

Exactly, so this is a major lead up. It was multi-day, Elton John, the whole nine yards…
I think she scheduled her birthday around Elton John’s schedule (laughs). Her birthday is Nov. 22. I didn’t go because I was doing work for AARP in Atlanta, and I had a speech in Hartford on being gay. I’ve been so busy, and then she schedules her birthday a month early, so sorry Billie that I wasn’t there.

You have close to 15 years to plan. How are you going to outdo her for your 70th?  
I don’t think I can. For my 50th birthday I went out to dinner and then a Broadway play with four people. She’s a little over the top, and I may be too understated, but whatever. To each his own, but it’s pretty cool if you have Elton John singing at your birthday. I wouldn’t say no to that.



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