Martina Navratilova, the best woman tennis player in the world in 1982, was taking stock. "God knows if I could have been this good two, three, four years ago," she said. "Maybe I wasn't willing to do it then because I didn't realize my potential, didn't realize what I was wasting. It's just a whole growing up process, a maturing."

She paused. "My God," she said, laughing "I sound like a bond."

Like everything else about Navratilova's year, the timing was perfect, the humor reflexive. Navratilova, who won the hearts of the sometimes heartless New York fans while losing to Tracy Austin in last year's U.S. Open final, has won everything else this year: 67 matches, Wimbledon, the French Open, two legs of the Grand Slam (she won the Australian Open last December). She has lost one match (the final of the Avon Championship to Sylvia Hanika) but she has never won the U.S. Open. She would like to win it very much.

One of the pleasures of following women's tennis is watching its heroines evolve: Chris Evert Lloyd's grace and graciousness, Tracy Austin's increasing openness to and with the world.

In 1982, Martina Navratilova has played like a woman self-possessed. "I feel good about myself," she said, "the way I look, the way I feel, the way I play." And, she says, "It's not because of the winning. It's because I'm doing what I should be. I'm not wasting my life . . . I'm giving it a good shot."

It has been a long time coming. Some athletes lead lives of practiced routine. Navratilova has lived a saga, complete with intrigue (her 1975 defection from Czechoslovakia) and trauma (stories about her private life). Behind the headlines and adlines cowered a sometimes scared, sometimes lonely woman with equal measures of talent, strength and insecurity.

Nancy Lieberman, Navratilova's friend and a star player in the now-defunct Women's Basketball League, said, "Here was a 17-year old lady, a tennis player, who defects, leaving her family for the opportunity to play tennis. She's a communist. She doesn't believe in the regime, but she's a communist and she's strong. In the first two weeks here, she gained 20 pounds, eating like crazy. She found McDonald's. So now she's a big communist beating up on these poor American girls. She got bad ink for being overpowering. Her physical presence was not accepted in society. And she didn't have a coach or a family to go to."

But, Lieberman says, "She's not a wanderer anymore."

The change began at Wimbledon in 1981 when Navratilova lost in the semifinals to Hana Mandlikova, 7-5, 4-6, 6-1. "She came back in the room madder than I ever saw her," Lieberman said. "She said, 'Damn it, I can win it and I'm going to win it.' "

Renee Richards, her coach who quit recently to resume ophthamology practice full-time (in part because of a conflict with Lieberman, she said), taught Navratilova tactics she never thought about. Tennis became more of a thought process. "There was still a lot more (to learn from Richards) but I think I'm more capable of doing it on my own," she said.

Lieberman prodded Navratilova into becoming a workaholic. "I concentrate more in practice now than I did in matches before," she said. "In 1978-79, I'd take five or six days off. I'd hit one or two days before the tournament, thinking the first rounds would be easy and I would play myself into shape. Even when I was No. 1 ('78-79), I was like that."


The workouts changed her body and her body image. "I mean I was big," she said. "There were stories about me using steriods. I was huge. I was fat. I would have made a great shot-putter. If a little girl growing up today has the same body I had, she won't feel funny about it."

Recently, her picture was used in a Time magazine cover story about the new concept of femininity -- in shape and not just shapely. "That was something," she said. "I was right next to Olivia Newton-John."

Lieberman said, "Martina has finally said to herself, 'I'm getting prettier, my body is accepted. My tennis is here.' She's not looking for anything anymore. She's not buying items to fill the void of her potential. It's here."

Hard work led to winning, winning to confidence, and confidence to statements like these: "If I win the Open, I just might not lose another match the rest of the year."

Navratilova's confidence -- her "overconfidence," Evert called it -- has become one of the livelier topics of conversation at the Open. This seems to amuse, and confuse, her. "My attitude seems to be turning a lot of people off. When I didn't care, they said my attitude wasn't right," she said. "Now I'm turning people off because I'm too confident."

Pam Shriver, her doubles partner, said, "Athletes don't like to hear others mouth off. Some of the most famous athletes mouth off: Reggie Jackson, Ali, Martina. Good athletes who deserve to mouth off, mouth off. I think Chris and Tracy think it's a lot of hype. If it's for real, which I think it is, I'd be scared."

Navratilova said, "You can't say Ali is arrogant because he's done what he said he would do. I'm not saying anything near what he said. When people say, 'Haven't you had a great year?' I say, 'Yeah, I have.' I'm proud of it. I worked my little butt off."

Perhaps one reason some find this new tone jarring is that they were accustomed to Navratilova's self-doubt, her emotional vicissitudes: "Before I was emotional, vulnerable. Now they see a really strong, confident woman. Maybe they can't relate to it."

One of the intriguing things about Navratilova has been the contrast between the imposing, physical, presence and the vulnerable interior. "I'm still a big softie," she said, "but on court I'm not . . . I cried my eyes out watching E.T."

The question is how long can she maintain the emotional high and the success that goes with it. She said she has only taken off only two days in the last 14 months. "I don't know how long I can do it," she said. "I'm ready to put my feet up. The tennis ball makes me crazy. When you're winning, it's great. When you don't have it, you don't want to bother."

What happens when she loses? What happens if she loses the Open, the thing she wants most? "If I lose, it's not that much more a failure because I want to win so badly. I'm sure I can deal with it. I've dealt with worse things in my life than losing the U.S. Open. I haven't lost a leg or anything."

Only a leg of the Grand Slam.

"Touche'," she said.