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MARTINA : Returning to Homeland, It Hits Her That She Now Is Truly an American

July 27, 1986|MIKE DOWNEY | Times Staff Writer

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia — Navratilova never regretted the August night in 1975 that she walked softly through dark, deserted hallways at the Immigration and Naturalization Service building in Manhattan and told FBI agents, face to face, she wanted to defect. To her, it remains her finest hour.

Martina Navratilova left this country. So did her sister. So did her cousin. So did her first tennis coach. So did a world champion Czech figure skater. So did 17 Czech hockey players, two of them in the last two weeks.

Navratilova's grandparents had their 30-acre property appropriated by Communists in 1948. Twenty years later, 11-year-old Martina woke up one morning and was told not to go outside and play, because Soviet tanks were rolling across Czechoslovakia.

Her grandfather beat and browbeat her mother. Her parents divorced when she was 3. On the same day she found out how her real father had really died, Navratilova's stepfather also told her that he would prefer her being a prostitute to sleeping with women.

She was 23 before anybody told her that she had a half brother. She has never met him. Her real father had had an illegitimate son before marrying Martina's mother.

Later on, after the divorce, her father remarried, divorced again, fell in love with another woman, was hospitalized for a stomach ailment, then committed suicide in the hospital after the woman visited him there and told him she was in love with someone else. For 12 years, his daughter believed it was the stomach operation that killed him.

In England earlier this year, when Navratilova won the Wimbledon women's singles title for the seventh time, her sister, Jana, came to see her play, as did her mother and stepfather. On the last night of June, Martina and Jana went to see "Antony and Cleopatra," starring Vanessa Redgrave, at a London playhouse. At the moment Antony died, they began laughing because two rows behind them, somebody had started snoring.

The next day was their parents' 25th wedding anniversary. There was a small celebration, and her dad cooked. Navratilova went right out and beat Bettina Bunge in straight sets. But a man asked if the presence of her family might become a distraction before the tournament was over.

"It doesn't distract me, having them here," Martina said. "I don't think anything can distract me anymore. I've run the gamut."

On a dazzlingly sunny, swelteringly horky (hot) July afternoon in Praha (Prague), birthplace of Martina Navratilova, her friend and foe Chris Evert Lloyd was asked what would be the first thing she would do or see--family and friends excluded--if she had not been permitted to set foot in her native land for nearly 11 years.

She said she would go to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., see her old school, and check out her old tennis court.

Baltimore-born Pam Shriver was asked the same thing. "Seafood," she said. "Chesapeake seafood."

But she realized the answer was frivolous, and gave the matter more thought. And more thought. Until finally Shriver said: "You know, I just can't imagine it, being away for so long. I feel lucky, never having had to face anything like that."

Regina Marsikova grew up with Navratilova. She knew her when she was still Martina Subertova. They were born in Prague two months apart. Marsikova still lives here, and for three years, from 1982-84, she could not leave the country for any reason because she was the driver in an automobile accident that left one person dead. She also served eight months in jail.

Now back on the women's tennis tour, free to come and go, Marsikova was asked the question:What if she went away and was not allowed to come back? Refused permission to see the places and faces of her youth.

"Old Town," she said. "The first place I would go is the Old Town part of Prague. It is so beautiful there, I cannot imagine never seeing it."

To be gone from Czechoslovakia for good would be to miss 4,000 castles and historic ruins; 13th Century churches; skiing in the Krakonos (Giant) Mountains; the dramatic gauntlet of statuary on the Charles Bridge, where it crosses the Moldau River; the Bertramka, where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart worked on his operas, and the Tyl Theater, where Mozart's "Don Giovanni" had its world premiere in 1787. Film Director Milos Forman directed "'Amadeus" on these very locations.

There is also the astronomical clock--a description in more ways than one. It is one of Old Town's most striking tourist attractions, an enormous, ornate, double-deckered timepiece bedecked with religious artifacts and emblems of centuries-old astronomy. "I just saw it," Shriver said. "Incredible!"

Hana Mandlikova, native of Prague, heiress-apparent after Navratilova's abrupt farewell, was given license to travel without restriction after Martina left, provided she never would do anything so drastic as to defect. For such a guarantee, Mandlikova could keep most of her winnings and stay away as long as she wanted, without interference--a deal Navratilova was unable to get.

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