You have to be in love with the game. It was never about money because I didn’t even know I could have a career in tennis. When Rod Laver won Wimbledon in 1962, he got a ten pound voucher he had to spend at the club. I dreamed of winning Wimbledon, and I craved to be on court all the time.
I’ve always played the way I wanted to play. Even when the federation tried to moderate my style, I wanted to be at the net and I loved nothing more than hitting volleys. Coaches back in the Czech Republic told my dad I needed to stay on the baseline and he said, “Thank you but no thank you, we’ll play the way she wants to play.” And it’s the same mentality and stubbornness I brought with me my whole career.
My emotions on court hindered me until I took control. I would harp on too much about mistakes or if I got a bad call; one point would turn into three games, and sometimes a game into a set. The key is to get that balance – you need the emotion for the competition and it’s healthy to feel disappointed, but you can’t let it take control.
“Turning to experts was a game changer – after that, no one could handle me!”
Turning to experts for help was a game changer. In the summer of 1981, Dr Renee Richards started helping me train on all aspects of my game. After that, I had the fitness to implement any strategy without getting tired. I didn’t have to play points a certain way to conserve energy and if it took 20 shots to win the rally, so be it. Embracing that change put me on a different level to everyone. No one could handle me!
Being a champion means doing everything you can possibly do to be the best at whatever you do. My life was training – not only fitness, but speed and tactics, and most of all technique. In this game, if you don’t have technique, you can’t hit the shot to employ those tactics. It’s all-encompassing to be a champion – you have to have every element at its best and coordinated well for it all to come together. Feet, hands, shoulders and head have to be on the same level for it to work.
It was never about breaking records. I wanted to win titles and be number one, but to do that, I had to be a step ahead. Every time I’d reach a goal, I’d want to reach another. I wanted to work the minor details, whether it was a drop shot or a kick serve. The only record I chased was the ninth Wimbledon title but even then I didn’t think about it till I got the eighth.
The sweetest win was the last one – winning the mixed doubles in my last match ever. It was the mixed doubles US open with Bob Bryan [in 2006], and I knew going in that it was my last match. I went out on a winning note and did it at almost 50 years of age, so that was pretty cool.
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