So overpowering early in today's match that Chris Evert Lloyd worried about humiliation, then so cautious as to betray her talent, Martina Navratilova suddenly imagined defeat. "The match was slipping away. Oh, my God. 'Evert Upsets Navratilova.' "

Correction: Navratilova Beats Evert--Again.

For the third time in five years, Martina Navratilova has won Wimbledon by beating Chris Evert Lloyd in the championship. The score today was 6-1, 3-6, 6-2, with Navratilova winning the last five games--all after seeing that scare headline--with the loss of only 11 points.

Barely had the last ball rolled free, winning the championship, before Navratilova pirouetted at the net and turned on a smile that dazzled even in the sunlight of Centre Court. Taking the gold platter of victory from the Duchess of Kent, she held it high for photographers.

Quickly, as if no one would see, Navratilova kissed the edge of the trophy.

"I'd be glad to give up the half-million bucks to win Wimbledon," she said later, meaning the $500,000 a women's wear outfit owes her for winning her third of four designated tournaments. "Let Chris have the money."

Ever the mischievous imp, Navratilova added, "I was going to bribe Chris. But she wouldn't have taken it, anyway."

As she had won the first set in 22 minutes with the loss of only 14 points, Navratilova finished off Evert so quickly as to suggest that here is a champion who already fits her ambition.

"If I win the Grand Slam, I would truly be one of the all-time greats," Navratilova said today, needing only to add the U.S. Open in September to work already done. "That's what I've wanted to be."

In ways that Billie Jean King couldn't with all her guile and artistry, Navratilova controlled Evert by adding to her own shotmaking magic an undeniable strength that had Evert reeling in defense most of the match.

Time after time, Navratilova sent Evert scuttling to her backhand corner in pursuit of volleys solidly struck. When King tried this in the semifinals, Evert simply fired backhand passing shots that eluded the old champion.

Not today. Not against Navratilova. Off the heavy volleys, Evert fetched only timorous returns. These weren't enough. Navratilova is a mighty presence at the net. As Evert's attempted passing shots came over, Navratilova volleyed them away.

At 25, Navratilova is in control of both her powerful athleticism and the emotions that once ran so raw as to bring her to tears on court. To beat her, the good players said, just stay close. She'll choke.

As measure of how far she has come, there was a pretty red ribbon tied around her waist today, defining a sleek body once so chunky a catty gossip looked at her print dress and said, "And now we're into shower curtains?"

A defector from Czechoslovakia in 1975, she spent six years "feeling like a stateless outlaw." She became an American citizen last July. Her dirt-brown hair has since become blonde. She has admitted to bisexuality. She has taken former tennis player Renee Richards as a coach and basketball player Nancy Lieberman as a trainer.

Evidence beyond question of Navratilova's maturation is that once upon a time, maybe only a year ago, the mere thought of defeat might have produced defeat.

Even today, Evert would say afterward, "Martina played well under pressure. I thought she'd crack, but she didn't . . . At the U.S. Open last year, she kind of choked that match. In tight situations, Tracy (Austin) and I have come out better . . . In the third set today, she came up with great shots."

Instead of the thought of defeat being a self-fulfilling prophecy today, it was so startling as to be galvanizing to a woman almost supernaturally confident the last fortnight. "My life used to be ups and downs," she said two days ago. "Now it's up, up and away." Had a tall building presented itself, Navratilova might have leaped it in a single bound.

Yet after growing "too complacent and not attacking enough" in losing the second set, she also was behind, 2-1, in the third, when the ominous headline gained entry to a mind closed to such trepidation for nearly a year. Navratilova reached the final of her last 18 tournaments, winning 13. Of her last 54 matches, she won 53. She made it to today's final without losing a set in five matches.

But she lost the second set today in such a bumbling fashion as to give Evert a seed of hope nourished by rousing cheers from the 14,000 spectators at Centre Court, most of them in love with Evert (a heroine here even before she showed the good sense to marry a Briton).

Navratilova found herself down in the third set.

"At 1-2, I had to break her right back," Navratilova said, with no way to know, as Evert later would admit, that her opponent was thinking negatively. ("I didn't think I could win the match after that first set. I just didn't want to be humiliated. The second set, it surprised me how well I played.")

Evert went up, 15-love, but then Navratilova took over. From the net, two backhand volleys put her up, 15-30. When she raised it to 15-40 with a forehand passing shot, Navratilova, aware that the Centre Court patrons were politely on Evert's side, clutched her racket under an arm so she could clap for herself.

Evert made it 30-40 with a backhand cross court, but Navratilova broke with an overhead off an Evert lob put up in defensive desperation.

The next big game was the sixth when Evert, serving down 3-2, had a 40-15 lead only to see Navratilova run off the necessary five straight points to break her again. The break point was a backhand volley, off the wood, that fell softly in front of Evert. The applause for such an important point was tepid.

By then, it also was clear that Navratilova's tactics were superior to Evert's. Evert confessed as much, saying, "The way to play Martina is to come in on her backhand, because it's still relatively weak. If I felt a little more comfortable at the net, I would've won the match . . . But when it comes to the crunch, base line is still my game."

Navratilova can play any game. Now, on this year-long streak of near-invincibility, she no longer must say, "I couldn't get the recognition or respect I deserved."

Of course, it still doesn't earn her any affection here to keep on beating Evert, whom she laughingly calls "half-British." But Navratilova took it in stride today. "They weren't against me, they were for her. They gave me credit when I hit a shot."

She smiled nicely. "And I clapped for myself."