Hundreds came to the bookstore yesterday afternoon, many armed with multiple copies of her autobiography, aiming their cameras at her supple frame, trying to edge past security for a sneak peak at her famous forearms.

"She's my hero," said Ruth Lamothe of Washington.

They wrapped around the aisles of Crown Books on K Street, beyond Danielle Steele pulp and Tommy Lasorda pablum, past copies of "The Courage to Be Rich" and "Games Mother Never Taught You," planning the obligatory compliment on Wimbledon and sweet words on how she'd inspired them.

"I just think she's awesome," said Debbie Addison of Laurel.

She sat there coolly, perfectly postured at a small table in the religion and philosophy section. Someone had placed an arrangement of flowers atop the red tablecloth, near her glass of apple juice and five black pens. A bookstore employe took each copy of "Martina" and handed it to her.

"It's kind of brainless to just keep signing your name, but it's nice to see the people, to see that they care," said the International Superstar.

They didn't seem to mind when she couldn't personalize each autograph. "She talked to me!" they gleefully commented after she'd thanked them for coming. And they stared dreamily at the black scrawl inscribed in their books, bearing only her first name. Many tried to photograph her, but were efficiently hustled away by the bookstore reps.

"She looked so good. She looked really fit," said Liza Flores of Silver Spring.

"How does she sound?" asked latecomer Lisa Brewster of Washington. "Does she sound European?"

Flores answered definitively: "She sounded like Martina Navratilova."

"Oh, God!" Brewster sighed.

After she had promoted herself for an hour, they gathered in a semicircle outside and applauded her grand exit. They ogled as she stepped into a long, black Cadillac and marveled at her friendliness, her beauty, her inspiring nature.

Although it would be easy to dismiss the fans as a bunch of camera-toting star chasers, many of them wanted a glance at Martina Navratilova for reasons far beyond her celebrity.

"She's strong and she's tough and she's got lots of intelligence and she's a woman," said Lamothe. "I think she's helped women and I think she's helped lesbians, and that's important to me."

"She knew what she wanted and went after it. That's an example not just in tennis but in life," said Sharan Hill, who drove 90 miles from her Winchester, Va., home to see the six-time Wimbledon champ.

Said Sheryl Katzman, a gay rights activist, "I wanted to see her. I wanted to congratulate her on the courage it takes to come out in print."

"Martina," which Navratilova cowrote with New York Times sportswriter George Vecsey, hit U.S. stores June 24 and shot to No. 5 on the New York Times' best-seller list in its first week. It is more than a tennis star's book -- it is an exuberant love letter to the western world, a celebration of fast food, open sexuality and, most of all, freedom.

The plot: Independent young tennis player from Soviet-bloc country tires of the government's intrusion on her life, boldly defects to the United States, where she has no family and few friends, achieves mild success on the pro tour, gets fat on American junk food, falls in love with a lesbian novelist, discovers her sexuality, vulnerability and inner strength, works hard to improve, becomes an even bigger winner, and rallies her way to fame, fortune and American citizenship.

"They weren't cheering Martina the Complainer, Martina the Czech, Martina the Loser, Martina the Bisexual Defector," she writes. "They were cheering me. I had never felt anything like it in my life: acceptance, respect, maybe even love."

As she joked with fans at the bookstore yesterday -- winking when she declared she was too popular to sign personal autographs -- there was little doubt she'd gained the acceptance she had yearned for. All she had to do, literally, was smile.

"The thing that struck me is that she's a very attractive person. Even with thousands of people in line, she still has time for a word or a smile," said Amy Curry of Bowie, who brought three copies of the book and two cameras, one with a zoom lens.

"She's not a stuck-up individual. She talks to anybody," said Myki Janifer of Washington. "She is a very down-to-earth person."

By the time Martina Navratilova had scooped up her miniature fox terrier and headed for the limo, Crown had sold 360 books and provided admirers a chance to experience a role model in person.

"At least we got to see her," said one fan as the car drove off.