by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON, England — Youth will be served.

Youth will be volleyed.

Youth will be backhanded and forehanded and slammed and cross-courted and finally, on this early summer day, youth, in the form of 18-year-old Steffi Graf, would be defeated. At Wimbledon. In the final. By Martina Navratilova, 30, who, following the winning point, leaped in the air not once, not twice, but three times, screaming, “YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!”

Not bad for an old lady, huh?

“I wasn’t one of the doubters,” a grinning Navratilova would say after her 7-5, 6-3 win Saturday, her eighth Wimbledon singles title, tying the record of Helen Wills Moody, “but there were plenty of them out there. I know that.”

What’s that line about age? All in the mind? Here was a mind made up, a mind determined, a mind locked on defending all those Wimbledon titles the body had won.

Here was Navratilova, gunning a serve that baffled Graf, continually attacking Graf’s backhand, blowing on every ember in search of fire with which to win.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played as well tactically,” Navratilova said afterward. “If you believe in something hard enough, you will convince yourself that it is just the way it is going to be. You control your thoughts. Your body follows. You can control your mind easier than your body.”

What is this? Swami lessons?

Well, OK. If all that sounds too guru for tennis, forgive her. Consider whom she was playing here. Steffi Graf, the Wunderkind. Steffi Graf, with the nuclear forehand. Steffi Graf, the blonde, West German prodigy whose press buildup was as scary as the 45 straight matches she had won coming into Saturday. Is “won” the proper word? How about bombed? She knocked off seeded players as if she were late for a bus. When she entered a room, people yelled,

“Why shouldn’t I be confident about playing Martina?” Graf said. And that was after the loss! So you take that opponent, and the fact that Navratilova had not won a tournament this year (the first time in 13 years she arrived here with an empty pocket) and now throw on the way she was losing: double fault at match point at the French Open final; double fault at set point at Eastbourne’s final.

You shake her nerves and you rattle her brain. That was suddenly the word on the champion whom people once called machinelike.

Yeah. Well.

She won Saturday in 69 minutes.

All those people who said I was psychologically unfit, they just don’t know me,” Navratilova said. “There was no way I was going to let nerves play a part.”

Remember that Graf had beaten Navratilova in their previous two meetings, largely by smashing that killer forehand and chopping balls at Martina’s feet. But in this match, Graf’s returns were an inch or two higher, the forehands just a whisker weak. Nerves? A split-second’s hesitation?

Whatever. Such things can decide championships. So can the net, which was decidedly pro-Navratilova Saturday. She enjoyed four net-cord points (ball hits net, falls over), none bigger than at 3-3 in the second set, with Navratilova serving and trailing, 15-30. “I just figured the gods are really with me today,” she said. “Thanks, Zeus, or whoever’s up there.”

Actually, Zeus might have been the only one not included in Navratilova’s entourage, which is roughly the size of Iowa. She also played with a tiny gem-studded racket stuffed in her sock; a gift from a fan named Sugar Ray Leonard.

With all that going for her how could she lose? Graf, by the way, had a different reaction to Martina’s good fortune.

“That stupid net,” she said.

But youth will be served. Sooner or later. Graf may not have put it all together Saturday, her first Wimbledon final — which followed her first Wimbledon quarterfinal and her first Wimbledon semifinal — but there were plenty of moments for Navratilova to remember with caution. Five wicked aces. Countless crosscourt winners. The final point total for the match was remarkably close: Navratilova 70, Graf 63.

And consider this: At set point, trailing, 0-40, Graf responded by 1) firing a wicked serve that Navratilova couldn’t handle, 2) serving an ace, and 3) backhanding a crosscourt bullet that left Navratilova screaming, “GOD!”

As in, “HELP ME!”

Graf won that game, and staved off three more set points (six overall) before falling. Even at match point — with Martina as poised as a mountain lion — Graf whipped out a backhand return for a winner. At Centre Court Wimbledon? At 18? If you don’t think that bodes well for her future, stay away from the stock market.

“Do you want to play Martina again soon?” Graf was asked afterward.

“Yesssss,” she snapped, as quick as a volley.

Tell you something?

So Graf is no longer coming. Graf is here. (“There were times, with her big serve, that I thought, ‘Who am I playing here? Pat Cash?’ ” Navratilova said.) And yet this time the nod went to experience, tactics, wizened athletics. And when Navratilova was finally handed the silver winner’s plate
— the sixth time in six years — she held it high and beamed at the approving crowd. And she caught the thumbs-up sign of a familiar foe.

Chris Evert.

“We’re the old guard,” said Navratilova, who beat Evert, 32, in the semifinal. “This was for us, for us Geritol people. When you’re in your 80s, you’re called an octogenarian, right? What’s it called when you’re in your 30s?”


So we are completed with Navratilova and Graf, but we are not finished with them. With Evert sliding and Gabriela Sabatini still a few chalk marks away, this blonde-on-blonde may be tennis’ hottest rivalry for the immediate future. Barring injury, a career change, or any more offers from Penthouse magazine, Steffi Graf will capture Wimbledon someday, and probably more than once.

“When the Duchess of Kent shook my hand out there, she said one time I was going to win it,” Graf said.

There you have it. A duchess.

Youth will be served. Youth will return. For now, remember this image: Martina with the big silver plate, Steffi with the small one. As the two women stood on the grass, among the rapid- firing photographers, Graf looked out at the stands, green and royal, and licked her dry lips.

“Eight championships,” she said, turning to Navratilova with a grin. “How many more do you want?”

“Nine is my lucky number,” answered the champion.



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