NEW YORK — She was flat on her back in the middle of center court, her eyes squeezed shut in glory, as if she had to lie down to absorb what she’d just accomplished.
7-6, 1-6, 7-6.
Mandlikova beats Navratilova.
What a match! What a spectacular match! A showdown that was never supposed to be. Everyone knows that just as dessert comes at the end of the meal, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd come at the end of a women’s tennis tournament.
Chris vs. Martina, punch after punch, rematch after rematch, Ali and Frazier in tennis dress.
But wait, lookie here. First Hana Mandlikova picks off Evert Lloyd in a grueling semifinal on Friday. Then, on Saturday — in the sweatbox they call U.S. Open center court — she goes for the kill against Ms. Invincible.
And she gets it. The first Grand Slam title not won by Chris or Martina in four years.
7-6, 1-6, 7-6, Mandlikova.
Incredible. Familiar-looking opponent
This was something special. Oh, no doubt that final point — when Mandlikova swatted a backhand past Navratilova’s outstretched racket and into history — no doubt that will be emroidered into the tapestry of U.S. Open miracles.
But there was more. Go back to the start of it all, while the sun was still broiling hot in the sky, for here was an equally remarkable moment, missed by most of the 21,000 fans squeezed in the stadium and the millions more watching on TV.
Remember that Navratilova vs. Evert Lloyd is like Hi-C vs. vodka. They are that different. Ah, but Saturday, as Navratilova dropped into her opening crouch and stared across at Mandlikova, she saw, in many ways, a youthful reflection of herself.
Ten years ago, at the 1975 U.S. Open, 18-year-old Navratilova hid in a New York apartment from the Czech authorities. She was defecting.
Now, one decade later, as an American citizen, and as the best female tennis player in the world, she was looking down the racket of the biggest
“recognized” female star of her homeland, a land where Navratilova still has a jail sentance hanging over her head.
“I love my country,” Mandlikova would later declare, “and I never say anything bad about my country.” Whom was she speaking to?
For Navratilova, Hana Mandlikova was a glimpse from the world of Might Have Been. Did she give it a thought? How could she not?
Then, whip, slap, swat. Mandlikova won the first game, the second. The third, fourth, fifth. And from then on it was blood. You could feel a shiver go through the crowd, the kind that comes when your nerve endings realize the impossible might be happening:
My god. Martina has met her match. Second set a throw-away
Well, not so fast. For Navratilova is nothing if not resilient, and she steeled herself and came back to win five straight and tie it. Yes, Mandlikova eventually won the set in a tiebreaker, but the point had been made. Ms. Invincible was no longer asleep. This fight would go the distance.
The second set was a Navratilova blowout. But it was as if Mandlikova knew she had to give one to get one. She let Navratilova shine in set two, then threw the grenades in set three. It was blessed warfare from there on.
Inch by inch, point by point, they slogged through the final set. Hana was running Martina all over the court, screaming serves, blistering forehands.
Then it was 5-3, Mandlikova just one game from winning it all. Navratilova went to work on herself, clenching her fists, slamming her racket, reciting out loud what she needed — “two more games, damn it!” — and almost unbelievably, she gut- wrenched it into a tie, and eventually a tiebreaker.
And then, Mandlikova just ripped it up. Six straight points, and everyone knew Goliath had been slain.
Victory. And how many fans will remember the image of Mandlikova, flat out
on the cement, fists raised, as if taking a make-belive blood transfusion from the magical court itself?
“It doesn’t happen very often to me,” Mandlikova said. It happened Saturday.
There will be other matches, other Martina-Chrissie matches, a return to status quo. But for one afternoon in the very aorta of America, two native Czechs went at one another heart-first, and the one that shouldn’t have won took it all.
7-6, 1-6, 7-6, Mandlikova.
For now and ever after. Incredible.