The Masters: Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, and the supreme impact of the doubles

We are five days past the kickoff of the Wimbledon championships, a tournament that annually represents one of the single best spots to bring together our sports teams, through a mix of exquisite championships and the periodic outpouring of sheer sentiment. The course-setters, the forefront of change, the ones who introduced us to professional tennis and helped to breed the ever-shifting policy of mixed rankings on the women’s tour, are no longer with us.

Those are Martina Navratilova, 36, the transcendent figure who makes the crowd cheer — and who, incidentally, won the record 15th Wimbledon title of her illustrious career when she stepped onto Centre Court at the All England Club in the summer of 1980. And there is Steffi Graf, 25, who lifted the women’s trophy seven times to Martina’s four. Martina would win eight Wimbledon titles, Steffi five; Martina has 22 grand slam titles to her name to Steffi’s 13. (She was also the first player to have a simultaneous calendar-year Grand Slam, which Martina, Steffi, and Serena Williams would achieve in 2002.)

Steffi had to pull out of the match with a foot injury, and Martina had to pull out of the final because of a thigh injury — injuries that would eventually sideline Martina for more than a year as well. But Martina took six of her grand slam titles from 1984-91, including five straight, and Steffi one from 1993-97, which includes one of her three straight. Steffi went on to clinch the titles in 2005 and 2010.

The women of the original 9 were, and still are, a special and important group, arguably the top group of ladies in the history of the game. This year, I would like to remember, instead, their feats on the court and how they created a climate where more women began to run for positions as best-player-in-the-world or best-possible-player-to-come.

At that point, women’s tennis had enjoyed the same impact as the sport’s recent (but not first) great Super Bowl champion, Peyton Manning. Best-player-in-the-world. They were a group of players who were coming into their own as the era progressed, and they, along with now retired great Chris Evert, helped to instill the sense of possibility and personal achievement that has characterized women’s tennis for more than two decades.

Top tennis players — who can be the best in the world, and who can have huge potential — can’t climb to the top of the sport with an unlikely win in an exhibition match. They require ultimate certainty on the grand-slam level — something like the NFL’s Super Bowl and NBA Finals.

So what would have taken away from the legends’ accomplishments, what would have left their presence, what would have freed women’s tennis to grow?

Well, one that was but one of several possibilities: Janette Husar. She was a formidable presence on Wimbledon’s women’s side — yes, a lady with her own website, her own press clippings, her own Twitter account. If you had six weeks to take a look at Novak Djokovic and Martinique Woman, you could find almost nothing less than a whole lotta Husar.

And had she won the 2012 event, the only time the tournament opened its doors to ranked singles competitors who were not Williams sisters or Navratilova and Graf, women’s tennis would be no less interesting or compelling for it. A much more exciting tournament.

Top tennis players — who can be the best in the world, and who can have huge potential — need to be able to defeat the best on the court at the very highest level — something like the NFL’s Super Bowl and NBA Finals.

And that would mean abandoning the non-disclosure agreements and guarantees that limit the conversations athletes have with one another when they are on or off the court.

When I wrote The Masters on Martina, I included this quote from her when I asked about her game: “I can see clearly in my own eyes that I know I’m going to win.”

She found out. And she led by example.

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