Martina Navratilova's reign as the queen of Wimbledon very nearly ended today in a match of pain between good friends on treacherous Court No. 2 at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

Navratilova saved a set point in the first-set tie breaker, survived a crash into a pole behind the court, and beat South African Greer Stevens, who took an even more painful tumble, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3.

It was the sort of match, Navratilova acknowledged afterward, that might well have gotten away from her a couple of years ago, when she had less self-control and determination.

"I think so. I had every excuse to lose," said Navratilova, sniffling and hoarse from a cold and sore throat.

She was playing lethagically. She felt awful, she had a pulled muscle in her leg, and her dash into the netting at the back of the court in the eighth game of the second set left her doubled up momentarily with pain in her left ankle. She had a nasty bump on it, the result of a collision with the post that anchors the canvas back wall.

"But I didn't want to lose today" she said "I just wanted to fight it out. I know Greer was playing her heart out, she probably played the best match she ever has against me. She had nothing to lose, I had everything to lose, but gutsed it out at the end."

Both players, in fact, did so.

Stevens injured her knee in a match in Boston 13 months ago and needed major restorative surgery, including transplant of a ligament. She rehabilitated herself, but had to change her style. She plays every match now with her leg in what looks to be five pounds of pro- protection -- a steel-hinged elastic brace, bandages and tapes from midcalf to midthigh. It is an ugly contraption, but today it saved her when she sprinted for a wide shot, slipped, and skidded into the side wall in the fifth game of the final set.

Stevens pulled a hip muscle and twisted an ankle in the fall.She limped through the rest of the match, fighting bravely, but her chance had gone.

Navratilova kept her crown, but Stevens was just glad she could walk up to the net and shake hands under her own power.