WIMBLEDON, England — Martina Navratilova was getting slapped around, pounded, humiliated on Centre Court. Every serve from Steffi Graf drew blood, every forehand doubled her over, she was reeling, she lost nine games in a row — nine in a row? She never does that — before suddenly, mercifully, the rains came and play was suspended as everyone scurried inside.
Heaven called time out. In less than an hour, Navratilova, 31, would be dethroned, stripped of the Wimbledon crown she had held for six years. She lay inside the women’s dressing room, taking treatment on her aching legs, as Graf, 19, listened to a Walkman.
Forty-four reign-delayed minutes.
And that was that. When the skies cleared and the sun returned, it was a younger woman’s day — and before you could say, “Grand Slam,” Graf had finished the destruction and tossed her racket into the stands.
It’s Steffi’s Wimbledon now. She can take it home, cradle it, put it on the shelf next to her Bruce Springsteen albums. Her teen-age game was fully licensed to kill Saturday afternoon, flawless from the second set. History will show that she took 12 of the last 13 games and captured the Wimbledon crown, 5-7, 6-2, 6-1.
She was the winner. People are talking about her. But let us talk, for a moment, about Navratilova. Because sometimes, it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you repay the game.
The thing about the young is they can make you feel so old. Navratilova
— who was trying to break the record for most Wimbledon singles titles
(eight) by any man or woman in history — had never lost a final here before. And suddenly, she was getting the stuffing knocked out of her. Graf, after self- destructing through the first set, was running her ragged, almost toying with her, seemingly rushing the net with enough time to say, “Let’s see, should I embarrass Martina to the left or the right this time?” And then making the shot.
It was bad. It was ugly. (“I got blown out,” Navratilova herself would say later.) Trailing, 4-2, in the second set, the eight-time champion slammed the ball over the net and into the corner. Her point, right? Wrong. Graf chased it down — which in itself is a miracle — then whipped it crosscourt for the game winner.
From then on, it was no contest. The rain served only to delay the inevitable: Graf won all but one game in the final set — the one Navratilova took right before the rain delay, ending Graf’s string at nine. In the clincher, she came back from 0-40, watched Navratilova double-fault twice, then fired a backhand that hit the net and landed just inside the line.
Game, set, match.
“I was very happy,” Graf would say. “I always thought, after winning my first major at the French Open, that I would never feel that happy again.”
How much were those same words running through Navratilova’s mind?
Let’s be honest here. Martina has never been appreciated like other tennis stars. She was born in Czechoslovakia, but now carries an American passport; neither country has completely forgiven her. She is, by her own admission, gay, nothing more, nothing less, but there are people for whom that is enough, that is too much. They turn off.
She has always been the foil for Chris Evert, the black hat to Chrissie’s white hat, and yet, Saturday, with a new rival, on a court she has graced with more talent and more drive than any other woman in the history of the game, Navratilova was the enemy again.
They jeered her. They showed her no respect. When the rains began to fall, she paused to wipe her glasses, and the crowd broke into a slow clap, its way of saying, “Come on. Get on with it.”
“That was really bad,” admitted Navratilova, who made an angry gesture in response. “It really upset me. What did they want me to do? I couldn’t see! I’m not stalling, for God’s sake. I’m not arguing line calls. I’m just wiping my glasses. It’s not my fault I have to wear them.”
How sad. A champion needs to explain why she was wiping her glasses? No. She deserves better. Know this: When Graf took away her crown, Navratilova came right to the net, shook Graf’s hand and whispered something encouraging. When Graf accepted the 1988 silver plate (which Navratilova had wanted “more than anything in my career”), she stood by and applauded and forced a smile.
“How hard was that for you?” Navratilova was asked an hour later.
“Not as bad as you might think,” she said. “I could feel what she was feeling. I know that joy. Sure, I’m very disappointed. But she was the better player today.”
Here is a woman who has never been less than gracious about her opponents, a woman who, at times, bent over backwards for something nice to say when she was crushing them all, 6-1, 6-0. All she ever wanted to do was play well, she was the harbinger for “athletic” women’s tennis, the forerunner for the Grafs and Sabatinis — and yet, because of her rugged looks and her private life, she takes the invisible weight of dislike every time she steps out there.
Two days earlier, she beat Evert to advance to the Wimbledon final for the ninth time in her career — an astounding feat. Yet she received no applause: The crowd was busy jeering a line call on Evert’s last point.
On Saturday, the clapping was merely polite when Navratilova accepted the runner-up award. The explosion of love was reserved for Graf.
In the press conferences afterward, the questions to Navratilova were often about retirement.
“I don’t know,” she repeated. “If my body holds up, then I’ll be back.”
The questions to Graf were of power and future.
“Do you compare yourself at all with the fighter Mike Tyson?” a German writer asked.
“Well, I’m not going to talk about retirement like he did,” she said.
The room broke into laughter.
In time, perhaps, we will come to appreciate what a sports star Navratilova really is. Perhaps she will indeed come back, if her body holds up, and win Wimbledon one more time for the history books. “If anything would keep me going, that would,” she said, “but I’m not greedy. Eight ain’t bad, you know.”
And perhaps it will have to be enough. Graf will only get stronger. She is single-minded about her tennis, and, at 19, is already just one win away from a Grand Slam (the U.S. Open) –something even Navratilova never accomplished.
“It won’t give me any more motivation to try and beat her,” said Navratilova, who will be in Flushing Meadow this September, as usual. “If she wins it, I’ll be the first to congratulate her. . . .
“Hey, if I had to lose today, this was the way it should have happened. If I had lost to Chris (in the semifinals) I wouldn’t have been happy, but it would have been OK, because it was Chris. But to lose to the best player in the world at Centre Court in the finals, well, maybe that’s the way you sort of pass the torch. . . .”
Nice. Classy. You wonder how many newspapers will bother to print that quote amid the brouhaha over Graf’s win. Don’t misunderstand. Graf did something spectacular Saturday. She demolished a legend.
But hail the conquered hero. She was, in defeat, every inch a champion. Someday perhaps, when Graf reads these accounts, she will realize that as well.
“What did Martina say to you when you walked off together?” a reporter asked, eager to jot down the comment for posterity.
“She . . . um. . . . “
“She . . . um. . . . I can’t remember what she said.”