Martina Navratilova began 1982 with 24 straight victories, a newly strengthened game and a determination to be recognized as the game's best player.

"How could it be anyone else?" wondered Pam Shriver, Navratilova's doubles partner. "She puts herself on the line 12 months of the year, on every kind of surface, playing everywhere. I just don't think it would be (fair) for anyone to consider anybody else. Saying this tournament can decide it isn't right."

"This tournament" is the season wrapup, the $300,000 Toyota Championship. Navratilova, top-seeded in the 12-player, single-elimination tournament and No. 1 on the computer rankings, turns snappish when anyone suggests Chris Evert Lloyd could usurp her with a win here.

"I believe I'm No. 1 no matter what happens here," she said earlier this week. "Yes, this tournament is important. All the top players are here, it's the last one of the year, and you want to finish the year on a good note. But I have won 14 of 17 tournaments, and that ought to be good enough (to be No. 1)."

She has won 89 of 92 matches this year, collecting $1,386,055 in prize money and passing her previous earnings record set a year ago ($865,437). She won the bonus pool for the Toyota Series, taking home a wristwatch as well as a check for that achievement.

"I won more watches when I was 14," she joked later. "But it's nice to get something you can look at. Here in the States, there aren't so many trophies and things. Just the good old green stuff. That's fine, but it is nice to get something else, too."

Actually, the best something else would be an intangible for Navratilova. She has been ranked No. 1 since late January and sees no reason why that status shouldn't remain permanent.

"I've had a great year," she said. "I think it's ridiculous to let one tournament decide. What's the point then of being a consistent winner all year long?"

Navratilova won the first two Grand Slam events of the year, the French Open and Wimbledon; Evert took the second half with victories at the U.S. Open last September and the Australian Open two weeks ago, beating Navratilova in the finals.

Although she politely declines to be drawn too far into the controversy, Evert said calmly, "This is the fifth major tournament of the year and should have a bearing (on the eventual ranking). If I beat Martina here, I feel I am in the running."

But Navratilova, who beat Wendy Turnbull and Hana Mandlikova to advance into the final against Evert, simply doesn't see it that way. Although she was beaten by Evert in their most recent meeting in Melbourne, she believes she's got a psychological advantage.

"She beat me there when I just wasn't mentally tough," she said. "Because of the loss, I am more up for this. Yes, I'm psyched."

Navratilova resents having to defend her position repeatedly. "All of a sudden, this has become the big tournament," she said crossly after beating Turnbull Thursday night. "But it wasn't last year. When it was me, Chris and Tracy (Austin, defending champion), it was all decided (beforehand). Chris was No. 1."

She doesn't say it aloud, but an unspoken challenge is ready to pop out: Why not me?

Statistically, as Navratilova repeatedly points out, she should indeed be ranked above Evert. "In 1978, Chris was rated No. 1, and all she did was win six out of nine tournaments. This year, I have lost just three matches, and Chris has lost five," Navratilova said, adding "the statistics are in my favor."

Evert shrugged and said, "A loss by Martina would hurt her chances. And if I do win, I don't envy the people who will do the rankings."

Shriver, who had defeated Navratilova in the U.S. Open quarterfinals, is emphatic in her view of the who's-No.-1 situation.

"She's a clear-cut No. 1, and I know I'm a bit biased because I am one person's doubles partner," she said with a grin, "but win or lose (this tournament) without a doubt, Martina is it. After playing all year long, it's hard for her not to be a bit draggy at this point -- she plays indoors, outdoors, on clay, grass. It's not really fair to compare, when one person (Evert) basically begins her year in April.

"I can't see how even one loss would diminish anything she's (Navratilova) done."

Navratilova, putting in long daily practices, said she is working at perfecting her game. Dodging any more talk of No. 1, she is concentrating on footwork and position.

"I've always gotten away with a lot because I didn't always have to be in perfect position to hit the ball," she said. "That's why Tracy and Chris are so great. They are always in position to get at the ball. I guess it comes from repeating and repeating a move that you make.

"I'm trying now to repeat the same steps over and over," she said. Even at No. 1, "there's always room for improvement."