WIMBLEDON, England — There is a billboard on the London streets this week, which features the faces of Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, giant-sized, nose-to-nose. Only Martina’s face is in pieces, falling apart, like a busted jigsaw puzzle. And the caption below reads: “WILL THIS YEAR BE BREAK POINT FOR THE OLD GUARD?”

Whoa. Martina in pieces? Breaking apart? It’s like seeing Superman down on his knees. True, at age 30, she is having an unusually bad year; no titles, six defeats to five different players, shaky confidence. Meanwhile, Graf — the West German teenager with a rocket forehand — has been getting the buildup of a coming Bruce Springsteen. “Who’s the Boss now?” people ask.

“I used to be afraid of Martina,” Graf says, who is riding a 42-match winning streak. “But now it is time for Martina to be afraid of me.”

Ah. Well. There you have it. Regardless of outcome, this Wimbledon can no longer be another Martina march to glory. This is a smashed gauntlet. Old versus young. Still-got-it versus gonna-get-it.

After Graf beat her in Florida this spring, Navratilova declared: “Steffi Graf is the best player in the world right now . . . until I play her again.”

She played her again in the French Open final.

She lost.

But OK. Here’s the irony, a story beneath the story. Defeat makes us human. Human makes us lovable. Suddenly, as Martina is dunked into mortality, the media are now a bit friendlier. The fans are a bit more appreciative.

“Great,” she must be thinking, “now you come to my side.”

Can you blame her? For years, as the No. 1 player in the world, Martina faced nothing but lukewarm response.

“Navratilova?” someone would say. “She’s too muscular.”

“Navratilova? She dates women.”

“Navratilova? Too cold. Too perfect. I prefer Chrissie.”

People were wrong about her then. And now they are asking when she’s going to hang it up. Well. Hold on. Even the office grouch gets a gold watch sooner or later. If this indeed is the year Martina’s sun begins to set — and, as goes for Chris Evert, don’t bet on it — let us at least pause for an accurate appreciation.

Lord knows she rarely gets one.

You know, I’ve always wanted to go out on top,” Navratilova was saying the other day inside the cramped confines of the Wimbledon press room. “But the only way you know for sure is when you start losing, and I don’t want to go out that way.

“I’ve had two semifinal losses and four finals losses this year. For anyone else it’s a great year . . . but for me it’s bad.”

She shrugged. Here is perhaps the greatest woman to ever play this game, and you don’t need statistics such as five straight Wimbledon titles and $12 million in prize money to prove it. (Sentiment may favor names like Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills Moody, but one peek at Martina in action tells you those legends, in their prime, would not last five minutes on the same court.)

Yet her whole career has been held up to an odd light. She is a Czech-born player who defected to America. Taut and muscular amid short skirts and ponytails. Chris Evert first remembers Martina at a Ft. Lauderdale pool in 1973, where the Czech player emerged in an ungodly looking bathing suit, 20 pounds overweight, sucking on a Popsicle. “This girl must have guts,” Evert said to herself.

Forget that it was Navratilova’s first visit to the U.S., that she knew nothing of tan lines or bikinis (or Popsicles, for that matter). A pattern had been set. Out of place, funny looking, admired, if at all, for her guts.

Martina.

In her decade-long rivalry with Evert, Navratilova has always worn the black hat. Yet in truth, Evert is the steel- edged player, the amazon disposition, the one more likely to ice you and less likely to cry about it. Navratilova will weep after a loss, leads the quieter home life, and once acquired a dog by stopping on the highway because “it looked so lonely.”

She also, contrary to public thought, has a pretty good sense of humor. In a recent Sports Illustrated profile, both she and Evert were asked where they hoped to be in the year 2001. Evert answered philosophically: “At peace with myself, fulfilled, stimulated. . . .

Navratilova said: “In one piece.”

Yet despite all this, we often see Navratilova as a machine, a symbol of communist-bloc sports (even though she reached her highest success under American coaches) and of disturbing sexual tastes (even though Billie Jean King, an American icon, has admitted being bisexual).

It goes on still. Everyone takes a beating in the British tabloids, but the

dirt on Graf this week has been her refusal to pose for Penthouse magazine for a reported $270,000. Martina supposedly is “marrying longtime companion Judy Nelson in a double-ring ceremony” when Wimbledon is over.

Great.

“Wouldn’t you like to just once meet the people who write those stories?” Navratilova was asked last week.

“Yeah,” she said, “I’d like to ask them, ‘Where did you get that stuff?’ But usually you can’t do that. If you confront somebody you don’t know, they’re gonna write about the confrontation the next day. You can’t win for losing. You’re better off keeping your mouth shut.

“I never get used to being psychoanalyzed, though. I wonder sometimes where these people get their degrees. People who have never met you write these long in-depth stories about your psyche — and they don’t even know how to spell your name!”

Sometimes, even that doesn’t matter. For years — ever since the news of her relationship with golfer Sandra Haynie — people have been spelling her G-A-Y. This is the way it works: The public latches onto a celebrity’s most easily remembered characteristic, good or bad. Mary Lou Retton, the Olympic gymnast, assured herself a million-dollar future with a few flips and a great smile. Her real personality? Behind the cameras? Didn’t matter. The teeth mattered.

I wonder sometimes, if Navratilova had a loving husband waiting for her after the matches, there for all the cameras to see, maybe carrying a couple of kids, would the world have been kinder to her?

Who knows? Whatever. The sympathy we’re seeing now is the stuff borne of last-minute rethinking, the don’t-know-what-you-got-till-it’s-gone principle. Suddenly, there is talk that Navratilova is past her prime, that she and Evert are on the back porch, about to walk off into the sunset, taking tennis’ most enduring rivalry in tow and leaving the game in the hands of children.

And as we follow their homestretch, we are seeing Martina as, well, human. She double-faulted at match point in both the French and Australian opens. She recently switched rackets, from Yonex (which pays her $500,000 a year for endorsement) to a Dunlop, the model used by Graf. She moves along in this Wimbledon field — en route, she hopes, to her sixth consecutive title — knowing grass is the only outdoor surface on which Graf has yet to beat her. And perhaps only because Graf has never tried.

Some people see these as signs of panic, decline, the sunset of Martina. I don’t know. I figure she’s doing what most of us do when we start getting 30th birthday cards: She’s thinking too much. “I’m disappointed in the way I’ve been falling apart at the drop of a hat,” she said. “But there’s nothing wrong with my game. . . . It’s all emotional.”

Ask any established sports star if he can still improve — ask Magic Johnson, ask Wade Boggs, ask Wayne Gretzky — and he will say yes. Naturally. It keeps you hungry. The idea that your best hand has already been played is frightening. What if someone then comes along and does better?

So it is now with Navratilova. After defeats by Graf and another 18-year-old, Gabriela Sabatini, she said: “Even losing to them, I still couldn’t pull myself together and give it all I’ve got. . . . I was scared to find out if they could beat me when I’m playing my best.

“If they can, I am finished.”

It takes a lot of courage to say that. And a lot of smarts. Those things come with age, just as, sometimes, your speed and strength depart. We’ll be hearing plenty more about Graf in the years to come. (Years? Probably later in the week.) And no doubt Navratilova sees in her a pea pod of herself, fierce concentration, astounding power, growing confidence. “She has put the bee on the bonnet of both myself and Chris,” says No. 1 of No. 2. The rest is just a matter of time.

And so be it. For now, Martina is still the defending Wimbledon champion. She may yet wipe out the field. In many ways she opened the door for the intense, well-conditioned, top- flight tennis that Graf and hundreds of other hopefuls now pursue. I doubt that Graf, fresh and bouncy and ambitious, will ever appreciate what that took.

There have always been a dozen ways to dislike Navratilova. Too foreign, too manly. That is what some people think. Here is what I think:

I think it takes guts to endure everything she has endured. I think it takes guts to go out there with all that gunpowder on you, and all those spectators ready to light up. It can’t be easy knowing people are whispering about you, it can’t be easy always playing the witch to Chrissie’s Cinderella.

It can’t be easy to be separated from your family, to have no stake to your hometown, to be the best there ever was and still feel something is lacking. How many times has she felt, as Evert has often, at one with the crowd? That everybody loved her? Doesn’t a champion deserve that?

There is talk that Navratilova might represent the U.S. in the Olympic Games next year — in which tennis, for the first time, would be a medal sport. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “My father thought I could make it as a sprinter. I always figured I missed my chance by becoming a tennis player.”

That would be nice. Martina — who is indeed, for the technical reader, a U.S. citizen — playing for free, for a slice of American glory. Maybe people would see her differently then. It would be an ending of sorts, but a beginning as well. Maybe, like Evert, she could finally get a Wheaties box cover. Before the billboards take her apart piece by piece.

A few years ago, after Helena Sukova beat her in the Australian Open to end her streak of six straight Grand Slam titles, Navratilova was asked about her disappointment. What could she say?

“It hurts but I’ll get over it. I still have two arms, two legs . . . and a heart.”

That, in itself, should not be news. The fact is, she has had one all along. CUTLINE Can Steffi Graf knock Martina Navratilova off her pedestal?

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