How Martina Navratilova Became the Smartest Player in the Game
Tennis legends and best friends Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert faced each other a record 80 times, including 60 meetings in tournament finals, from 1973 to 1988. While Evert dominated the early stages of what would become one of the greatest rivalries in sports, Navratilova eventually solved Evert and retired as the most accomplished player in women’s tennis history. Navratilova has a wide-ranging support staff, and the use of rudimentary tennis analytics, to thank for that.
In 1975, 18-year-old Navratilova defected to the United States from her native Czechoslovakia. She had already established herself as a rising star in women’s tennis, but it wasn’t until three years later that she captured her first Grand Slam singles title by defeating Evert in the Wimbledon final. Navratilova defended her Wimbledon title against Evert the following year, but after watching Evert finish 1980 as the world No. 1 singles player, Navratilova reevaluated her career.
Navratilova began surrounding herself with a support staff of nutritionists, trainers and other specialists to improve her game. During the summer of 1981, she began training with basketball star Nancy Lieberman, who helped improve Navratilova’s physical and mental strength. The decision paid immediate dividends, as Navratilova won the Australian Open in 1981 and the French Open and Wimbledon titles in 1982.
At various times over the next few years, Navratilova’s support staff included championship bodybuilder Lynn Conkwright and tennis kinetics expert Rick Elstein.
“It was a lot like the circus coming to town,” one player told Johnette Howard, author of The Rivals, a detailed history of the Evert-Navratilova rivalry. “You didn’t know what or whom you’d see next.”
One of the most influential members of Team Navratilova was Miami-based nutritionist Dr. Robert Haas, who was brought on board shortly after Navratilova’s upset loss in the quarterfinals of the 1982 U.S. Open.
“Martina was always a good player, but her career was erratic,” Haas told People in 1982. “She felt she trained hard, but there was some element missing. Her own good sense told her it was probably diet.”
Under Haas’s watch, Navratilova cut out red meats, fats and sugars. In The Rivals, Howard writes that Haas performed tests on daily-drawn samples of Navratilova’s blood for 39 variables and planned her meals accordingly. Haas, who authored the bestseller Eat to Win, called Navratilova his Bionic Woman. Indeed, Navratilova seemed more machine than woman in 1983, when she won 86 of 87 matches.
“Some day she will become the first computer-programmed player in history but all she wants is to win more Wimbledon titles than anyone else and to be the world’s No. 1,” the Glasgow Herald wrote in 1983.
Some of Navratilova’s peers found her focus on diet ridiculous.
“You should eat what you want,” Hana Mandlikova told the Sarasota Daily-Herald in 1984. “I would go crazy if some computer told me what to eat.”
Haas’s influence went beyond crafting Navratilova’s diet, however. He would sit courtside and chart Martina’s strokes and Evert’s reactions on his laptop. Navratilova would study this information before a match.
“[Evert] was the only player we did the computer analysis with,” said Haas, who nicknamed his program ‘Smartina.’
‘We Were Right’
In 1984, Navratilova won a record 74 consecutive matches, including six against Evert in tournament finals. After losing 21 of her first 25 matches against Evert, Navratilova ended her career with a 43-37 advantage in the series. Seemingly defying time, Navratilova went 27 years between her first and record-tying 20th win at Wimbledon and she retired with 18 Grand Slams.
While Navratilova’s numbers speak for themselves, her use of specialists and analytics is another part of her legacy.
“Even though other people weren’t doing it, our thing was, sports science will be huge one day,” Haas said in The Rivals. “Having your own trainer, nutritionist, using computers for analysis and teaching will be very big one day. … I think Martina was able to establish a new model for athletes. People were, of course, skeptical and they laughed at us. But what are you going to do? As it turned out, we were right.”
In 2012, ESPN the Magazine ranked the advancement of analytics in the major sports and tennis ranked second to last, ahead of boxing. Craig O’Shannessy, a leader in the tennis analytics field, is hopeful that will change.
“Analytics in tennis should be something that is a strength of our game,” O’Shannessy said at the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “To a lot of observers, tennis is like pinball. The ball goes here, the ball goes there. There seems to be no rhyme or reason, but tennis is exactly the opposite. It’s 50% chess; you’re going to make a move or hit a ball to a certain part of the court, there’s going to be a natural reaction to that. It’s also 50% poker; the percentages of the game absolutely matter. I think tennis very much lends itself to analytics.”