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Appreciation: Martina Navratilova

3 minute read
William A. Henry III

ONLY IN DREAMS — DREAMS SHARED BY LEGIONS OF THE NO LONGER YOUNG — IS Martina Navratilova likely to turn back time and win a 10th Wimbledon singles title on her farewell visit, starting this week. On the Centre Court greensward, Navratilova has been Jesse Owens in Berlin, Diego Maradona in Mexico City, the athlete at one with the place and the moment. The speedy surface suited her attacking game. The ritual and formality suited her sense of history. She loved racing to the net, secure that any shot she kept in bounds would be a winner, and she loved curtsying when it was over. Probably the greatest in the history of her game, she was always at her greatest here. But with her 38th birthday looming on Oct. 18, Navratilova these days is a step slower, a return shot shy and, in her valedictory tour around the circuit, too often immersed in memories rather than the task at hand. The rigid fat-free diet, the weight training for strength and the basketball drills for agility have only stayed, not stopped, the passing years. Navratilova at her best is still the fiercest force in what looks like a sport of grace but is in truth one of intimidation. These days, though, her best comes on single shots or at most single games. Martina can no longer play a Martina match. The woman who once won 54 straight matches, lost one, then won 74 more, now keeps losing to players who have no business beating her. Last week in the warmup at Eastbourne it was Meredith McGrath of Michigan. Each defeat makes her less fearsome to the next journeywoman, often young enough to be her daughter.

Navratilova was tough enough to withstand defection from Communist Czechoslovakia as a teenager, knowing she might never see her family again. She was gritty enough to bear the burden of being the world’s most famous gay athlete, made harsher because she was also the first woman in her sport to train the way men do. Yet this stubborn competitor was always fragile, often on the edge of a “Martina meltdown.” No one wins everything, but it seemed Navratilova should. Her fans still agonize over the 1989 U.S. Open, when she was two games away from beating Steffi Graf in straight sets, or the 1981 U.S. Open, which she lost to Tracy Austin in two tie breakers after winning the first set 6-1. She blames mostly her shotmaking, not her nerves. “If I had had a backhand down the line instead of only crosscourt,” she says, “I would have won two more French Opens.” In her mind, she is getting better — craftier at her game plan, defter at her execution. On court, the story is the same old sad one, the fluttering fall of an autumn leaf, glinting brightly and waving in the wind, yet fated to come to earth.

Navratilova has won more matches and more money, $19 million, than any other woman in tennis. In one of the most remarkable feats of endurance in any sport, she has taken at least one title for 22 straight years and ranked in the top five for two decades. Barring a miracle, her numbers won’t grow more impressive during Wimbledon fortnight. But for a match or maybe a few, there will be glints of the lightning serve, the headlong dash to net, the utterly % unreturnable volley, the predator’s grin, the confidence of an artist whose heart and mind know the way even when the feet are sometimes slow to follow.

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