Originally Published: May 8, 2013

Impact Martina Navratilova had on Jason Collins

By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

When Martina Navratilova answers her cell phone at home in South Florida, she sounds oddly out of breath.

"Uh, no, it's not a good time," she says, gasping for air. "I'm on the elliptical right now. Hitting it hard. Call me back in half an hour."

At 56, the 18-time Grand Slam singles champion is still pushing herself. Half an hour later, she picks up and has already moved on to the nail salon. Time for a manicure.

"Maybe a little darker than last time," she tells the attendant.

No athlete has ever been a bigger winner than Navratilova. She won 167 WTA singles titles and 177 in doubles, both records. She finished in the top 10 for 20 consecutive years (1975-94) and produced four of the best six single-season winning percentages of all time. Thirty years ago, she went 86-1. Including doubles and mixed doubles, she has a total of 59 Grand Slam trophies, the most in the Open era.

Navratilova was fearless on the court but, remarkably, even more courageous off it.

Thirty-two years before 12-year veteran NBA center Jason Collins declared he was gay, Navratilova was already out.

"You have to be true to yourself, whoever you are," Navratilova said. "At the time, it didn't seem to be as big of a deal as this was. It was terrific. I was so happy for him."

That's because Collins plays basketball, a male team sport, at the highest professional level.

"I figured it would happen, I just didn't think it would happen this quickly," Navratilova said. "I think Jason waiting until the season was over was a great idea. He was probably ready a couple of months ago, but his timing was perfect. He seems like a nice guy."

Navratilova knows this because Collins recently reached out to her with an email and they have exchanged several since, pledging support for each other going forward.

Collins told Sports Illustrated that the bravery of the pioneers that came before him, including Navratilova, helped inspire him to come out. "The words thank you aren't enough," he said to the magazine.

Navratilova believes Collins' revelation will save lives since, she said, one-third of teenage suicides are connected to sexual orientation.

"This was the last frontier," Navratilova said. "Now it will happen in each sport. Basketball has one, then it will be baseball, football and hockey. And then it will all be done and we can just get on with it. With each player out, it will be a lot less of a big deal than it was with Jason.

"And that's great. That's exactly how it should be."

Asked if she had a role in Collins' decision, Navratilova downplayed her significance.

"I pushed the ball forward," she said, seizing on one of her favorite sports analogies. "Jason pushed it however many yards farther forward on the playing field of life.

"As long as we move forward, it's all good."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

5 questions with Bethanie Mattek-Sands

Mattek-Sands
Mattek-Sands

Her tennis attire has, at times, overshadowed her tennis.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a 28-year-old who lives in Phoenix, likes to push the fashion envelope in this staid, sometimes quaint sport. Her choice for the 2011 pre-Wimbledon party was an arresting yellow-green dress fashioned by designer Alex Noble from actual tennis balls. Remember the tube socks and biker chic at Wimbledon in 2006? Or the leopard print and the cowboy hat at the 2004 and 2005 U.S. Opens?

But there's been some substance behind all that style, too. She turned pro in 1999 -- at the age of 14. Mattek-Sands is in her 13th WTA season and has finished ranked among the top 100 players three times in the past five years. Last year, however, a series of injuries drastically curtailed her activity. This past February her ranking had dropped to No. 205. Healthy again, she's up to No. 68 and 23-11 in singles (including qualifying) and 15-6 in doubles. Two weeks ago, she won three matches in qualifying at Stuttgart and advanced all the way to the semifinals before losing to Li Na. Last week she beat Andrea Petkovic and Madison Keys in qualifying at Madrid before losing to No. 16 seed Ana Ivanovic in three sets.

ESPN.com chatted by phone with the 28-year-old Mattek-Sands during her qualifying run in Spain.

ESPN.com: You beat three top-50 players in Stuttgart, including No. 7-ranked Sara Errani. What on earth got into you?

Bethanie Mattek-Sands: Well, I'm not going to lie. They have that Porsche sitting there in the corner on the main court. I'm kind of incentive-driven now (laughing). Funny enough, I was down match point [to Maryna Zanevska] in the second round of qualies. I came back and played really free, played some good matches. I've actually played a ton of matches and really been grinding it out this year. In doubles, I'm playing with Sania Mirza, my best friend on the tour. We won a couple of titles [Brisbane and Dubai] and we're sitting at No. 5 in The Race. It's been a hectic year, but it's great to be healthy again.

ESPN.com: Take us through the injuries of 2012. Which one was the worst and why?

Mattek-Sands: It was the left hip injury. That was the one I had surgery on in 2008. This time, they went in with a scope and took out some bone spurs. It's tough to come back from that one. Looking back, I should have taken more time to recover. When I started compensating from my hip, it put pressure on my back. I probably shouldn't have played the U.S. Open -- that way I could have kept a special ranking. Right now, is the best I've felt physically in a long, long time. Like they say: Like a fine wine, I'm getting better with age.

ESPN.com: At No. 68, you'll be in main draw for French Open, singles and doubles. How excited are you about that?

Mattek-Sands: Getting into the main draw at Roland Garros, that was one of the first goals when I was coming back. After I reached the main draw at Charleston, I achieved that by getting to No. 104 -- because the cutoff was No. 105. Initially, Paris wasn't my favorite place but now I love it. My husband, Justin, and I stay in different places and try the different restaurants. Paris and me are definitely on good terms.

ESPN.com: You've had some good results on clay; you reached the third round at Roland Garros a few years ago. What is it about clay that agrees with your game?

Mattek-Sands: I'm not exactly sure why, but I really like clay a lot. I slide pretty well for someone who grew up playing on hard indoor. The first time I saw clay was when I was 12 at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton, even though we trained mostly on hard courts. I've learned to move on it and I still try not to sacrifice my aggressive game, try not to overcompensate. Some people have a tendency to hang back behind the baseline, but getting away from your game isn't good for anybody. I still try to sneak in a serve and volley and I'm getting into net a decent amount. That's my strength.

ESPN.com: What are your goals for the rest of 2013?

Bethanie Mattek-Sands: I think if I was writing down goals, the first one was probably getting into the main draws at the French and Wimbledon. Right now, I'm focusing on my game, working on the mental side of things. Everybody talks about sports being 90 percent mental. One of my goals was to be the mentally toughest player on tour. It's helped me win matches and get over these injuries. I need to be aggressive and look for short balls. Maria Sharapova does a really good job of that. Her three-set record is phenomenal; she knows how to close out matches. She's kind of the ice queen out there, she doesn't show much emotion. But it works for her. Serena Williams also has that mental fortitude. Staying at the top is a huge mental block that would prevent some good players from being great players. That's what I'm trying to work toward.