On September 6, 1975, Martina Navratilova was stripped of her Czechoslovakia citizenship when she asked the United States for political asylum. Considered by many as the greatest female tennis player of all time, she made this decision at age 18 in order to save her career, which was threatened by policies of her communist home country. Navratilova became one of the most successful – and outspoken – athletes in history.
Born on October 18, 1956 in Revnice, Czechoslovakia, she started hitting tennis balls at four, played the game regularly by seven and made her world debut at 16. The left-handed player won her first professional singles title in 1974. After much tournament success in 1975, the 18-year-old athlete decided to defect to the United States from Communist Czechoslovakia. The totalitarian regime was planning to restrict her career, so she felt like giving up her citizenship was the only way to keep playing tennis around the world. In an interview she explained, “It was very simple, I just wanted to play tennis. It wasn’t a job. It was an ambition. I knew I could make money at it. I was 18 – old enough to think I could do it, young enough not to consider the consequences.”
Navratilova became a world-class champion athlete. Sports Illustrated named Navratilova one of the “Top Forty Athletes of All-Time” thanks to her many winning stats: 369 titles overall, including 59-time Grand Slam Champion and 24-time Grand Slam finalist. In 2006 she retired from competitive play at 46 after landing one more record: the oldest woman to play at Wimbledon.
She also made history by becoming one of the first openly gay athletes. In 1981, after gaining U.S. citizenship, she came out as bisexual and later revealed that she identified as lesbian. This announcement cost her millions of dollars in endorsements, but gained her the confidence to speak out about other issues, including gay rights, gender equality and animal welfare. After retirement, she continues to use her platform to fight for human rights and equality. This stance has inspired other athletes, like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, to take a stand against injustice.