'You almost forget how to lose' - Martina Navratilova remembers her record win streak, 40 years on

Martina Navratilova
In 1984, Laureus Academy Member Martina Navratilova had a season that was nearly perfect – and one she believes can never be emulated by today’s stars. 

Let’s start with 27 shirts sitting next to an empty suitcase, on the bed of the world’s best tennis player.  When World No.1 Iga Świątek arrives at Wimbledon to begin her quest for a first title on grass, her wardrobe will land ahead of her and every aspect of her preparation – from travel, and practice schedules, to recovery and diet – will be planned by a key support team.

In 1984, when Martina Navratilova was in the midst of the greatest winning streak in tennis history, things were very different. She packed her own stuff. Often, she travelled alone. And always, she travelled as light as possible, given the equation that, by June of that year, she could rely upon with all but a mathematical certainty. 

 “There were 32 players in the draw. So, I’m playing five singles matches, four doubles,” she recalls. “If I was on the road for three tournaments, I would pack 27 shirts. Because I was gonna play 27 matches. And I didn't have time to do laundry on the road.”

The 1984 season didn’t start as Navratilova had hoped. The 27-year-old lost the final of the Silicon Valley Classic in Oakland, in three sets to Hana Mandlíková, snapping a 55-match winning streak.  

“I still remember that match,” says the 18-time Grand Slam singles champion. “I had been two wins from beating Chris Evert’s record. And I'm like, ‘Okay I'll have to start another streak’. And then I didn't lose until the last tournament of the year.”

So, speaking to Martina Navratilova about one of the greatest achievements of the Open Era, that’s the first thing you learn about The Streak – it was somehow even bigger than the 74-game mark that has stood in the record books for 40 years now.

As Navratilova points out: “I just had the 55-game streak. Also, at the same time, Pam Shriver and I had a doubles winning streak [as a team they won the Calendar Slam in 1984]. So, I lost like three matches in two years across both singles and doubles.

After Oakland, there were wins on carpet at East Hanover, New Jersey and Madison Square Garden, New York. Two clay court titles fell in Florida in the month of April, before a flight to Paris and the French Open. Only Mandlíková could take a set from the World No.1, who beat her great friend and rival Chris Evert in the final (of these first five successive tournament wins, the two had met in four finals). 

Navratilova won on the grass at Eastbourne, before moving on to Wimbledon, exactly 40 years ago, where she had won four of the previous six Championships. There she won all seven matches in straight sets; only Evert in the final managed to take her to a tie-break. Martina: The Queen of SW19.

Back in the US, it was time to pack another suitcase for a three-tournament swing through Newport, Rhode Island; Mahwah, New Jersey and on to Flushing for the US Open, where Evert took the first set before falling again in the final. Then Florida and Louisiana, before a flight to Australia to close the 1984 season with a bid for a record seventh consecutive Grand Slam singles title. 
Navratilova was looking back at The Streak while attending the Laureus World Sports Awards, in Madrid. There, in her role as a Laureus World Sports Academy Member, her votes helped to coronate winners including Jude Bellingham, Simone Biles and Novak Djokovic.

Forty years ago, she enjoyed a dominance in her sport that few athletes have ever experienced; and fewer still are as well-equipped as Navratilova to explain what it is like to ride that perfect wave for so long. 

“You almost forget how to lose,” she says. “I had a lot of confidence because I knew I didn't have to play my best and I could still win – against anybody. I just had to play… normal.  

“You know that you got all the bases covered. I had a better serve than anybody. I had a better forehand than anybody out there. Better slice than anybody. At the net? Hello?! 

“But even then, so many things have to go right. On your bad days, you need to be playing against lesser players. You can’t get sick. You can’t get injured. The stars have to align.

Looking back, those two years were the best years of my career. You don’t know that when it’s happening, but that’s how it was.

Laureus academy member - martina navratilova
When defeat finally came, it was a fittingly dramatic end to a titanic sporting story. Victory in Sydney made it 13 straight tournament wins, before the season-ending Australian Open and a chance for Navratilova to win a seventh-successive Grand Slam title, beating Margaret Court’s record. 

In the semi-finals, she faced Helena Suková, the rising Czech star whose mother had been Navratilova’s coach and mentor before her defection to the United States at the 1975 US Open. The 27-year-old Navratilova lost 6-1, 3-6, 5-7, saving five match points before falling at the end.

It was the end of something extraordinary; something that, four decades on, Navratilova believes we will never see again. 

“The field is better,” she argues. “The average player is more capable of beating the top players than they were 20 or 30 years ago. It’s not that I had easy matches, but it’s like, some days I knew I was gonna win, no matter what.

"Somehow against most players, even on a bad day, I was still getting through these matches. For the players today, on a bad day, you lose – because the other players are better. So, these streaks are more difficult to put together, no doubt about it, because the level is higher.”

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