On Sunday, tennis legend Martina Navratilova received the Racchetta d’Oro (Golden Racket) award for her contributions to the sport on the Campo Centrale at the Foro Italico in Rome.
As I understood we had no other choice, because they already had the complete program on Sunday. They couldn't fit us in. I felt like I was at the limit physically. I was trying, but it was absolutely impossible. Anhelina Kalinina
One of the most successful players in history, Navratilova is tied with Chris Evert in 5th place for the most Grand Slam singles titles won, having taken 18 majors, while she is also holds the record for the most Wimbledon singles titles, at 9.
Navratilova made her emotional acceptance speech in Italian to the Campo Centrale crowd ahead of the men’s final.
“Tennis gave me a surprising life, for which I am very grateful,” she said. “I always tried to give something back when I played, and also in retirement.”
Navratilova was a 4-time runner-up in singles at the Foro Italico, and a 3-time champion in doubles, her last Rome title coming in 2003 with Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova at the age of 46.
She won 59 Grand Slam titles overall, including 31 in women’s doubles and 10 in mixed doubles, the last being a mixed doubles championship with Bob Bryan at the 2006 US Open, a month shy of her 50th birthday.
Navratilova originally retired in 1994, after a record 167 singles titles and 331 weeks at No 1 in the WTA rankings, but she returned to the tour to play doubles in 2000, and also occasionally competed in singles.
The Czech-born American announced at the end of last year that she had been diagnosed with stage 1 throat and early-stage breast cancer, and, in January, she reported that her prognosis was good, and that she was going to start treatment that month.
The 66-year-old said that she had noticed an enlarged lymph node in her neck while attending the season-ending WTA Finals in Fort Worth, Texas, in November, and that a biopsy showed early stage throat cancer.
While Navratilova was undergoing tests on her throat, the unrelated early-stage breast cancer was discovered.
Navratilova returned to her work as a TV analyst at Tennis Channel in March, when, in an interview with TalkTV’s Piers Morgan, she said she was told by doctors that ‘as far as they know, I’m cancer-free’ and that she should be ‘good to go’ after some additional radiation treatment.
On receiving the Racchetta d’Oro, she stated that she is doing well after her battle with cancer.
“I’ve gone through a very difficult year, but now I’m OK,” she said.
Former player Daniela Hantuchova, who now commentates on Prime Video, fought back tears watching her receive the golden racket award.
“I will try not to be emotional here because, with every word Martina said, you can see how much it means to her,” Hantuchova said, translating Navratilova’s words for viewers. “Basically, saying the passion that the Italian crowd brings here to the tournament is the way she always tried to play tennis, first time she played here was 1973 and, even though she never won the tournament she always felt like this was her home.
“And she loves the food, obviously, not like days today and she’s going to have the ice cream, but she talked about how much she always enjoyed playing here in Rome.”
Hantuchova paid tribute to Navratilova, who grew up in Czechoslovakia and had to ask the US for political asylum.
“And I just want to say from personal experience, coming from the same part of the world, what Martina has achieved in tennis I think has to be multiplied by 10 times,” she added.
This year’s Italian Open has been dogged by rain and drawn criticism for poor scheduling and a chaotic women’s trophy ceremony late on Saturday night.
Losing finalist Anhelina Kalinina, who retired from the women’s final at the start of the second set against eventual champion Elena Rybakina because of fatigue and a left thigh injury, was critical of the WTA scheduling.
The final started a little before 11pm on Saturday, and the Ukrainian was not happy about playing so late.
“As I understood we had no other choice, because they already had the complete program on Sunday,” Kalinina said later. “They couldn’t fit us in.
“I felt like I was at the limit physically. I was trying, but it was absolutely impossible.
“I am very proud of my fighting spirit in these two weeks. I was fighting despite the score of several races, any situation and any weather condition as well as against every opponent.
“I’m still proud of this result, even though I couldn’t finish the match, but both weeks were great for me.
“I think it was the tiredness. Definitely right now we have no intention of playing and of working. I will take four days completely off just to recover.”
The WTA has since defended the Italian Open’s decision to reschedule the women’s final between Elena Rybakina and Anhelina Kalinina to 11 pm on a rain-affected Saturday, after former player Rennae Stubbs called the move an ‘abomination’.
On a frustrating day for organisers of the WTA 1000 event, players and fans, the men’s singles semi-final featuring Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas was interrupted multiple times because of rain with nearly 5 hours of play lost.
That meant Rybakina and Kalinina took to the court later in the evening, with fewer supporters in the stands, after organisers opted not to move the final to Sunday.
An anti-climactic finish followed as Ukraine’s Kalinina retired injured trailing, 6-4, 1-0.
“It’s not the desire of the event nor the WTA to see a match go on as late as it did, but it was the right thing to do,” a WTA spokesperson told Reuters via email on Sunday. “We congratulate both players on a great effort in Rome and wish Anhelina a quick recovery for the upcoming fortnight at Roland Garros and Elena continued success.”
The WTA added that the driving issue with respect to the scheduling decision was the weather, and it was important to ensure that more than 8,000 paying fans for the final, and others who stayed through significant delays, saw the contest.
The decision to proceed with the match was met with criticism online and there was awkwardness at the presentation when Moscow-born Kazakh Rybakina was asked to speak before the runner-up and had to prompt organisers to hand her the trophy.
“What the hell is going on with this presentation? Also the fact that the women are playing a final of a 1000 [event] at midnight is an abomination,” Australian Stubbs said.
World No 64 Alizé Cornet said it was disappointing that the final was not moved to Sunday: “A little sad to see that the women’s final of one of the biggest @WTA events of the season is starting at 11 pm. Nobody in the stands of course,” the Frenchwoman tweeted.
“Not really cool for both players to start such an important match so late. Why not put both men’s and women’s finals tomorrow [on Sunday]?”
Organisers of the Madrid Open recently apologised to the women’s doubles finalists of this year’s tournament following criticism for denying them the opportunity to make speeches at the trophy ceremony.
“These two WTA 1000s Madrid and Rome have been fiascos for women’s tennis,” former World No 3 Pam Shriver said. “There are no excuses but many reasons for the fiascos.”
Some good news for the Rome organisers is there are the plans in place to build a retractable roof, while they will also provide support for those affected by the floods in Italy.
The plans to construct a roof were announced at the weekend by Vito Cozzoli, the Executive Director of Sport e Salute.
“The roof is coming,” claimed Cozzoli. “The feasibility plan has been approved, and it will be a futuristic project that will make the Foro Italico’s center court usable year round.”
It will take 8 to 10 months to obtain the necessary building permits before construction can start that will take from 18-24 months to complete, with breaks taken during the 2024 and 2025 tournaments.
Some 2,000 more seats will be added to Campo Centrale, raising the capacity to 12,500, so the arena can then also be used for indoor sports like basketball and volleyball, as well as hosting indoor concerts.
After a bidding process that included 33 different proposals, the roof design contract was awarded to the Genoa-based Frigerio Design Group.
This year’s tournament featured expanded 96-player draws for both men and women after the tournament was upgraded and held over two weeks.
The Campo Centrale stadium opened in 2010 and a roof plan has been in the works for years without any significant progress.
Completing this year’s tournament in spite of the weather was not the only complication faced in Rome, as heavy rains caused unprecedented flooding in some towns, and, as a result, the organisers have announced assistance programs for those affected by the floods.
“We will refund all tickets purchased between Thursday and Sunday to all residents on the list of Municipalities affected by the flood that the Government will draw up,” said Angelo Binaghi, the FITP President. “We were amazed by what happened here in Rome, in our memory something like this had never happened.
“But it is only a very small part of the disaster that hit the towns of Emilia-Romagna,” he added. “As a federation, we want to issue contributions by helping our sports clubs whose facilities were damaged by the disaster.
“We have commissioned the Emilia-Romagna committee to carry out a census to calculate the extent of the damage.”