Melissa Kite meets Martina Navratilova, nine times Wimbledon singles champion and now pioneer of ‘tennising’ — an artistic technique that creates Jackson Pollock-style patterns
The jet set are strolling across the manicured lawns of corporate Wimbledon. Glistening white marquees filled with champagne and canapés await them at the Fairway Village and Wimbledon Club, just over the road from the All England Club where the tennis championship is taking place. Inside the tents, amid water sculptures and flowers and wine glasses lined up on trays, are some unusual paintings.
The pictures, which range in price from £1,500 to £126,000, are Jackson Pollock-like splatters of paint on canvas, which on closer inspection turn out to be the marks made by tennis balls at speed. As the guests begin sipping their pre-match aperitifs, the artist herself arrives in a silver Mercedes, drives straight across the lawn and pulls up as close as she can to the clubhouse.
Martina Navratilova hasn’t changed a bit. She looks exactly as she did in the heady days of her epic clashes with Chris Evert which captured the imagination of a generation of tennis fans. The nine-times Wimbledon singles champion sits down on a wooden bench outside the clubhouse and promptly tells an autograph seeker ‘No!’
If she acts like she owns the place, it is because, spiritually at least, she probably does. ‘I know this neighbourhood as well as the people who live here. I did an interview on centre court on Sunday and I had to sneak under there and put my hand on the grass. It’s like coming home.’
She still looks incredibly fit and indeed is due to play in the veterans’ tournament. She will be ‘hitting’ later on, which means practising.
‘I was lucky that I left on my own terms. I could still keep playing, my body would allow me to. How lucky can you get? I’m 51 years old and I could still play if I wanted to, but I have too many things to do.’
Nowadays she says she is just as happy hitting paint-coloured balls on to canvases, in a technique she calls ‘tennising’, as playing tennis itself. Some of the balls are carefully aimed, some are bounced up and down on the spot, pre-serve style, to make an intense pattern. Some are whacked randomly to create ‘more esoteric pieces’.
The idea was proposed to her eight years ago by the artist Juraj Králik, a fellow Czech. ‘I was very sceptical but curious. I wanted to try new things. I thought, “I’ll try it a few times and be done with it,” but eight years later we are still making pieces and the stuff just grew.’ This week the pair unveil their first commercial exhibition in London.
Ms Navratilova says that making the paintings is her expression of what it feels like to play tennis. ‘It’s that moment of suspense, when you hit the ball and it lands and you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. You let it go and trust that it’s going to turn out all right and so it is here.
‘It’s my expression of what tennis is to me, the beauty of it. People have always had their interpretation of what I am on the tennis court, this is my interpretation. The result is dynamic because it took energy to create it.’
There is talk of one day getting other players to take part, including Chris Evert, with whom she is still friends. Her former rival is marrying the golfer Greg Norman in the Bahamas as we speak but Ms Navratilova could not attend the wedding because she is commentating at Wimbledon.
She laughs. ‘I’ve been to her first two weddings so I told her, “This better be the last one.” But I think they’ve each found their match, their equal, and I wish them well.’
Despite changing the women’s game forever during those great battles with Chrissie, Navratilova suddenly reveals that she has regrets. ‘I think I did make it more physical and forced the players to become better athletes. But I wish I had made more of a mark on the way the game is played, in that I did serve and volley and come to the net a lot but they don’t anymore.
‘It’s the rackets, they make it more difficult to come to the net, a lot easier to do ground strokes. That’s the way it is unless they go back to wood or something. They sort of let the cat out of the bag.
‘It’s just more one-dimensional, more similar. There’s not as much variety and that’s what I miss, that’s what a lot of people miss, the variety of the games. And perhaps even the personalities are more alike as well, they all sort of go to the same school and talk the same way.’ She looks a bit disappointed.
I ask why she thinks there hasn’t been a British singles champion for 30 years.
Ms Navratilova, who lives in Colorado but has duel Czech–US citizenship, says, ‘The problem with America and England, you have a lot of choices. In America the girls have so many other options, and then there’s the mentality — we are coddled, there’s no question, we are.
‘You know, I had it tough growing up. I used to walk for miles and miles with my tennis gear in a big bag and was running after trains and trams and walked and it was ridiculous, the schedule that I kept.
‘But I wasn’t on the court that long. Now they play six hours a day, and they get driven to the court.
‘I think I had a better balanced life. It wasn’t so one-dimensional. You know, kids get burnt out physically and mentally. It’s too much. Parents are not letting their ten-year-old girl ride a bicycle because they don’t want her to fall off and scrape her knee. They’re ten years old, they’re supposed to get hurt. It makes them better athletes, riding a bike around.’
The equal rights campaigner does not think, however, that today’s women players should be toughened up by playing five-set matches.
‘We’re willing to play three out of five. But I think the guys are playing too long. It needs to be three. If anything, it needs to be shortened.’
She shrugs when I ask whether she could have beaten a man at the height of her career.
‘I don’t have testosterone so there’s no need to go there. Obviously the guys are faster and stronger. No matter how fast I run I can’t be as fast as a guy. There’s just no reason to compare apples and oranges.’
She says she will keep on playing tennis ‘as long as I can hold my own. Please, don’t retire me yet. I will take it year by year. It’s the sport of a lifetime. The ball never comes over the net the same way twice. Tennis is my life.’
ArtGrandSlam is at Smithfield Gallery, London EC1 until 12 July.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 5, 2008