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Q&A with Martina Navratilova

By Brandon Penny | March 19, 2012, 10 a.m. (ET)

Martina Navratilova has won more Grand Slam doubles titles than any other tennis player in history, but this week she will be seen with a new type of partner – a dance partner.  Navratilova is teaming up with professional dancer Tony Dovolani to compete on season 14 of the hit television show “Dancing with the Stars.” 
Instead of the usual opponents – Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Billie Jean King – Navratilova faced in her tennis career, which spanned 31 years, she will be facing 11 celebrities, all stars in their own right, on the dance floor.  Her competition includes singers Gavin DeGraw and Gladys Knight, actors Melissa Gilbert and Jaleel White, and television hostesses Maria Menounos and Sherri Shepherd.

After only three weeks of rehearsal, Navratilova and Dovolani, or “Team SweetSpot” as they have been nicknamed, will dance the foxtrot on tonight’s live season premiere at 8 p.m. EST.  Just days before the premiere, Navratilova spoke to TeamUSA.org about her champion mindset, spray tanning, dancing shoes and so much more.


How many hours have you been rehearsing?

Three to four.  We’re doing more of the body buildup and it’s not the body as much as it is the head.  Today we stopped because I couldn’t think anymore.  It’s all these quicksteps doing the jive and I just couldn’t compute it anymore.  It’s the head that needs to build up more than the body.

That must be new for you.

  • Yeah it is, that’s what makes it so fun because it’s such a new experience and you really have to concentrate.

When you were asked to be on the show, why did you choose to say yes?

I’ve been asked many years before and I just thought I wouldn’t be able to do it in those high heels and I didn’t want to get out of my comfort zone because this is about as far out of my comfort zone as I can get, but being the Health and Fitness Ambassador for AARP I encourage people to get out of their comfort zones, get out of their little sandbox and do something challenging and new and if I talk about it I have to be able to do it as well, I gotta walk the walk.  So I thought what better way to do it than to conquer my biggest fear, which is to dance in front of a lot of people because I get embarrassed dancing in front of myself.  Also, I found out the heels didn’t need to be as high as I thought they would be.

How high are the heels you’ve worn before compared to these?

I just thought the dancing heels were a lot higher than they really are, but they’re only a couple inches.  Some of the dancers wore higher heels but you don’t need to, the real dancing pros wear lower heels, like Ginger Rogers-type.  I have a bit of a stiff left arm, a little arthritis in the joint so I really cannot bend my toes so I really cannot do the high heels because I physically cannot get in them.  Once I figured out the heels are lower I started wearing some heels.  I’m used to wearing high heels for big occasions, galas and black tie affairs but that was years ago, I haven’t worn a skirt in 20 years.  I wore heels with pants to some event this year and I was feeling kinda sexy, like I can do this and it just evolved over a period of time.  But the biggest influence for me was AARP.  I think if I wasn’t a representative for AARP and trying to get people to do this stuff I wouldn’t have done it.

You said you’ve been asked to be on the show before, so have you watched past seasons?

I have and I particularly watched it when Monica [Seles, the show’s only tennis player until now] was on, of course.  I was actually hitting with her when she went on the show so I was really pulling for her and she said, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this, I have no rhythm.’  I’m like well I have rhythm but I wouldn’t do it, you’re more gutsy.  After she did it and time passed I figured well I could give it a go.  The last four or five years I haven’t watched the show because I’ve been in Europe in the spring so I haven’t seen it much at all.

Have you talked to Monica about it in the past few weeks?

A little bit, yeah, and she said to wear the dancing shoes a lot.  (Laughs)  But I’ve been okay with them – you rehearse in the flats and then you rehearse in the dance shoes and they’ve not really given me trouble, I’m comfortable in them.

You’ve seen the show before so were you familiar with your partner Tony?

I knew Tony but I didn’t know his name.  I remembered the face, I was always watching Tony, he was just so dynamic and so sexy and we were hoping it would be Tony but I didn’t know.  Unbeknownst to me, Tony asked to be with an athlete for a change and so we just totally hit it off immediately.  He’s the kind of guy I want to go on vacation with.

You’re the first athlete Tony has had in his 13 seasons on the show.  Has he compared to any of his previous partners?

No, he’s just happy because I show up on time and I’m very coachable.  I have no idea what I’m doing so I’m very open to whatever he tells me to do.  I’m very trusting that way.

Does it help you that you’re used to working with partners from your doubles career?

Yeah, both being coached and having partners on the doubles court.  I’m used to teamwork, that comes in handy, and being coached.  I love my tennis coaches, I took in everything they told me and I’m good at figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t and in dancing I’m totally in Tony’s hands and he’s a really good teacher.

Who do you like partnering up with better so far – Tony or some of your former doubles partners?

[Laughs] Well, Pam Shriver’s gonna come to one of the shows, Chris Evert’s gonna be at the first one.  Chris and I did win Wimbledon together, Pam and I won a whole bunch of Grand Slams together so they’ll be there supporting me.  This is a new partner, I’m not replacing Pam.  I have a new partner for dancing.

What would you say is the most difficult or most surprising aspect of dancing so far?

The detail of it, every single body part has to be in perfect position – the posture, the chest, the neck, the ankle, the head, both hands, fingers, everything.  It’s just so detail-oriented and I love that.

How would you compare preparing for a dance competition to preparing for a tennis tournament like Wimbledon?

I didn’t really prepare, it’s just a three-week crash course, I didn’t do anything before that, I was just doing my life.  You prepare for Wimbledon for years and years and years, so that’s why we’re all feeling totally out of our comfort zone because it’s a crash course then boom, you have to perform.

How does the footwork compare to what you’re used to in tennis?

In tennis you take big steps, dancing is much smaller steps, it’s much more delicate and you have to be light on your feet.  It would be great cross-training for any athlete, I would recommend dancing because it’s about balance and being aware of every body part 100% and you have to be light on your feet.  It’s great, I love it.

How might some of your tennis skills carry over and help you in dancing?

I think just being an athlete helps me and if you master one sport it’s easier to be good at another because you know what your body’s doing.  You’re aware of your body therefore you can pick up these things a little quicker than the average person.  In some ways it gets in the way because in tennis every movement you lean forward, whereas in dancing you have to really be straight up and down.

Is that something you’ve been working on a lot with Tony – your posture?

Yeah, it’s the biggest struggle with me, I keep wanting to move my head.  [Laughs]

Is he tough on you to correct that?

He doesn’t yell at me, he just corrects it.  I yell at myself hard enough!

I’m sure you always had goals going into your matches, so what is your main goal in this competition?

Just to nail my routine, to do as well on the routine as I did in practice.  If I do that, that’s the best that I can do.  Every routine is new every time you do it but I just want to do my best and know I didn’t choke or didn’t get nervous and I’m so excited by it all and I know I’m gonna enjoy every second of it.  I think the excitement of being on this stage and being able to show off will overcome any nerves that I have.  We’ll all be nervous but it’s how you deal with it and I think I will be able to deal with it pretty well, as I have for many years on the tennis court.

Do you think having the mindset of a champion will help you?

Of course.  Champions don’t quit until they get it right and so when I’m training, Tony doesn’t have to tell me to get it right, I’m already at the starting like saying, ‘Okay let’s do it again.’

You’ve been a pretty open person throughout your career but what do you think fans will learn about you through this show?

I think they’ll see the softer side because when you play tennis and you’re competitive, you have your game face on and it’s always serious and this is light and funny and smiley and happy and sexy and they’ll see a side of me that you won’t see on a tennis court from anybody.

You mentioned that you haven’t worn a skirt in decades.  Is dancing bringing out your feminine side?

You have to get girly.  I’ve always been graceful, I’m very graceful on the tennis court but it’s different to do it on the dance floor – there’s tennis graceful and there’s dance-floor graceful.  You definitely feel more feminine just by the getup.  Who couldn’t feel feminine when you have all these hair extensions and glitter and false eyelashes and spray tan and gorgeous dresses?

Have they been spray tanning you often?

Once so far but it’ll be every week because it wears off in about a week, so we’ll get it done every Sunday I think.

You’ve met the rest of the celebrities who will be competing against you, so what are your thoughts on the cast?

It’s a fun mix but a lot of them have some dance experience so I’m at a bit of a disadvantage there but we’ll try to do the best we can.  We’re the underdogs apparently at 20-1, Vegas odds, but I never worried about odds too much one way or the other.  Although I’m not used to being the underdog but I don’t mind it.

Who do you see as the biggest threat?

They all are apparently because they’re all favorites over us, so no pressure.  The pressure’s on them.  Hahaha!

Your first dance is the foxtrot, how’s that been going?

I love it, it’s fun.

Are you more excited or nervous for the premiere?

Both.  I’m very excited and I’m sure that I’ll be nervous but I’ll be enjoying every second of it.

Good luck!

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Martina Navratilova