"As long as I can walk and hold a racket, I'm coming back to Washington to play," Martina Navratilova said, grinning. "I seem to have an aura around me here."

Navratilova needed all her aura yesterday.

She survived crying babies, ringing phones, transistor radios and some of the best tennis Betty Stove has played for a 7-5, 6-4 victory in the championship of the Virginia Slims of Washington at Capital Centre.

Tennis players often are as tightly strung as their rackets, as pressurized as the balls they swat. Certainly Navratilova, who has won this event three times in the last four years, fits that description.

"Sometimes little birds start to fly around in Martina's head," Stove said with a smile before the pair tangled for the $20,000 first prize before 7,425 fans.

For much of this aggressive slugfest, Navratilova was in danger of letting her mind flutter away. But in the end, it was Stove who became rattled and handed over the match, losing the day's final 11 points to defuse what has been a close explosive meeting.

Perhaps Navratilova's belief that she cannot be beaten in this tournament helped her through the first set and a half when she battled to hold her flighty concentration.

"These poeple," Navratilova said of the fans in the cavernous Centre, "they are playing the radio, phones are ringing, babies crying."

But Navratilova kept sticking her fingers in her ears, saying, "Block it out," and growling at herself to "concentrate" at crucial junctures.

It was Stove who let a little thing - new balls - hurt her in both sets.

New balls are put in play after the ninth game of a match and after each 11th game thereafter.

"Martina loves new balls, because she can punch them where she wants," said Stove, who ranked fourth in the world with $216,362 in earnings last year." And I hate them. I have no touch with them. They just fly off my racket."

It doesn't take much to disconcert Stove. "I come with an on-and-off button," she likes to say. "And I have emotion buttons, too."

Even Navratilova said, "It's hard to play Betty. She either hits winners or misses everything. The match is really in her hands.You cannot control the match against her. You are at the mercy of her streaks. It is a very strange feeling."

And each time those new balls appeared Stove went off like a top pistol. Stove led the first set, 5-4, when the fiendish little green monsters bounced into play. She immediately hit a lob 10 feet long, botched a volley, then swatted a passing shot wide. Her mouth screwed up like she had bitten a persimmon. Navratilova ran off the last three games of the set, including a break of Stove at 15.

The second set was magnificent - a back-and-forth thriller with four service breaks at 4-4. Then came new balls. And there went Stove, losing every point of the last two games, including a double fault, three unforced errors and three feeble nonreturns of serve.

Store finished the match no distraught that she hit her final shot sideways off the wood into the box seats. A dismal end to a spirited match.

Navratilova finished her Washington holiday by teaming with Billie Jean King to beat Stove and Wendy Turnbull, 6-3, 7-5, in the doubles final for another $2,600 apiece.

In fact, Navratilova's worst moment of the day came when she was offered a choice between her $20,000 winners' check and a Russian sable coat. The Czech expatriot hugged the little animals, then said, "I want the coat, but my manager wants the cash."

In a scene out of Let's Make A Deal, the champ picked the money. "I just got a short mink coat from Santa Claus, she explained.

Navratilova has not been finicky with here mink. She was kneeling in it in the Smith Center parking lot at midnight after one of her matches this week trying to find a way to balance an empty soda can so that it would trip an electric eye and leave the lot's armlike gate open all night.

"I just can't resist," she said mischeviously, when asked what she was doing crawling around in the dark. And she kept right on until she figured it out.

Navratilova's puckish high spirits and single-minded fascination with whatever catches here fancy was almost her undoing yesterday.

When a baby with lungs like a police siren started bellowing during the first set, Navratilova couldn't take her mind off it and lost her serve, falling behind, 5-4. "Get that kid out," she yelled.

But the infant kept it up all the way to the parking lot. "Just when I'd think, 'It's gone for sure now,'" said Navratilova, "the kid would hit me with another blast."

"If the baby buys a ticket, it has a right to cry," countered Stove, needing her friend.

"Typical Dutch logic," answered Navratilova, "I bet it didn't even pay to get in."

What the paying customers saw yesterday was a nimble, patient and powerful Navratilova who combined everything from pounding serves to the most deftly angled half volleys at the net.

The 6-foot-1 Stove got in more than 80 per cent of her first serves (an astonishing percentage for her), volleyed beautifully, and in Navratilova's words "hit some fantastic backhand passing shots in the second set." Yet Navratilova was never seriously in danger from anyone, except possibly the baby.

"They say you body changes completely every seven years," said the 21-year-old, "and mine is changing for the better. Two years ago tests showed I have 21 per cent body fat. Now it's 11 per cent. I used to have to count calories like Billie Jean but my metablosim has changed and now I can eat everything . . . and I do."

Is this her year to win a major championship, or even knock Chris Event from her throne?

"I always start the year well," Navratilova said. "Maybe I am more eager. I seem to plug myself in for a few weeks and then run down. But I am developing new shots all the time.

"It's true, that I seem to be getting better all the time."

Now, if only every tournament was played in Washington.