We return to 1986 and a tumultuous event behind the Iron Curtain

EXCLUSIVE: Tennis in the shadowy world of Cold War cloak and dagger… as a GB team including Emma Raducanu head to the Czech Republic, we return to 1986 and a tumultuous homecoming for Martina Navratilova behind the Iron Curtain

  • GB’s women return to the Czech Lawn Tennis Club stadium on Stvanice Island
  • In 1986 this location was the iconic scene of a landmark event in women’s sport
  • Martina Navratilova returned home for the first time since moving to America 
  • Navratilova was part of the USA Federation Cup squad (now the BJK Cup) 
  • The super star was also fresh from winning her fifth Wimbledon title in England
  • GB and America were among the 42 teams who descended on the Czech capital
  • This meant giving a visa to Navratilova, who beat Mandlikova at Wimbledon  

Secret police everywhere, a returning defector, Cold War tension and the mystery wedding of a superstar player.

Whatever Emma Raducanu and the British team encounter at the Billie Jean King Cup this week against the Czech Republic, it will surely not be like the tumultuous events at the same venue the last time they visited.

Great Britain’s women are returning to the picturesque Czech Lawn Tennis Club stadium on Stvanice Island, standing amid the Vlatava river that flows through the city.

Great Britain’s female tennis stars are set to return to the Czech Lawn Tennis Club stadium

In 1986 this was the scene of a landmark event in women’s sport, when Martina Navratilova went back to her homeland for the first time since defecting to America eleven years previously.

The subject of huge international attention, Navratilova was part of the USA Federation Cup squad (now the BJK Cup) and fresh from winning her fifth Wimbledon title. GB and America were among the 42 teams who descended on the Czech capital.

This meant finally giving a visa to Navratilova, who weeks earlier had beaten the host nation’s star player and world number three, Hana Mandlikova, in the final at SW19.

The All England champion had long since defected to the US, desperate to escape the control of her Communist masters, to be allowed to play where she wanted, and keep all her prize money.

In the intervening time she had become a non-person in her homeland, a complete exile whose achievements were determinedly ignored.

In 1986 the Czech Lawn Tennis Club stadium (above) was the iconic scene of a landmark event in women’s sport

Martina Navratilova (above) returned to her homeland for the first time since leaving for America eleven years before

Her homecoming made for a febrile atmosphere, both on and off the court for what was then a highly unusual occasion – a major international sports event behind the Iron Curtain.

‘It was all cloak and dagger, everyone was a bit on edge all week,’ recalls then British number one Jo Durie. ‘ There was a sense of danger. We were constantly surrounded by government officials, who seemed quite nervous.

‘We were shown around the city by this nice young interpreter who warned us to be careful what we said as the police might be listening. The big talking point was how the crowd was going to react, and we soon found out.’

At first the reception was awkwardly polite for Navratilova. She first appeared at the opening ceremony which started the week, and teared up when the Czech anthem was played.

The formidable US team – which included Chris Evert – made its way towards the final. For their first round the game’s two superstars were shunted to an outside court, with China and Bulgaria playing on the main stadium.

The Czech government became increasingly embarrassed as crowds mobbed their matches, quickly warming towards the returning heroine. By the Friday umpires for their matches had been reminded to introduce Navratilova thus: ‘To my left, the woman player from the United States’.

Earlier that day there had been an even stranger attempt to distract from her presence – Mandlikova got married, mid-event.

Navratilova And Chris Evert at the Opening Of Federation Cup in Prague in 1986

Navratilova playing for the United States in the Federation Cup in July 1986 in Prague

In the morning David Irvine, the Guardian’s then Tennis Correspondent, went for his usual post-breakfast stroll and was walking through Wencleslas Square. Across the road he glanced at a couple emerging from a Registry Office.

He recalls: ‘I noticed them come out and have a few pictures taken and thought to myself ‘that looks a bit like Hana Mandlikova’, but instantly dismissed the idea because it seemed so absurd, and just walked on.’

Later in the day it emerged that he had, indeed, witnessed the recent Wimbledon finalist, marrying a Czech-Australian restauranteur called Jan Sedlak.

Mandlikova had arrived in the Porsche she was permitted to drive by the government. Most observers interpreted the nuptials’ bizarre timing as an attempt to upstage Navratilova, and the union was to be shortlived.

Two days later the US played the Czechs in the final, and Navratilova defeated the new bride 7-5 6-1 to clinch the winning point.

Amid emotional scenes the Prague crowd swung more and more behind the ‘visiting’ player and were roaring her on by the end. After match point the watching, stony-faced Czech Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal walked straight out, followed by his Politburo.

‘Maybe I wrote my book too soon, this would have been a great last chapter,’ said Navratilova. ‘I can’t deny where I come from. This is my homeland. This whole experience was beyond my wildest dreams.’

Mandlikova was left confused and upset: ‘I had dreamed of playing the United States at home, but I am somewhat disappointed,’ she said. ‘The public did not fully appreciate our efforts.’

The GB team were still there as they had reached the final of the consolation event, having lost in the first round proper.

Annabel Croft pictured at the opening of the Federation Cup Tennis in Prague in 1986

Durie describes it as a ‘surreal tournament to have been at’. Now a coach and commentator looking ahead to Britain’s one-off World Group eliminator against the powerful Czech team starting on Friday, she will be among those fascinated to see how Raducanu fares on her first ever senior outing on clay.

The main 7,000-seat stadium is now a hard court, so the tie will be played on the neighbouring Grandstand arena which is still clay, thus further heightening home advantage.

‘I think it is going to be difficult for Emma, and it’s going to be another new experience when she is still adapting to everything else,” says Durie. ‘ I think she is battling against a few things such as expectations at the moment, even if she doesn’t say she is. It’s a difficult situation she is in but maybe the team environment will help.

‘I do think she will be able to play on clay but it is going to take time. It’s not like she isn’t going to work hard or practice hard, but it doesn’t come overnight. My feeling is she will be fine but she needs to get through the next few months and keep learning.’

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