So it wasn't the cat hairs after all. It was the hamburgers (medium rare) that did in Martina Navratilova at the U.S. Open last fall. Who could have predicted a year ago that a quarter pound of ground round would have such an influence on women's tennis in 1982?

As the new tennis year begins with the Virginia Slims tournament of Washington, it is difficult to envision what fluky turn of events will disrupt things in 1983. Although six of the top 10 women players in the world will compete this week at George Washington University's Smith Center starting today, with the finals next Monday night at Capital Centre, it is equally difficult to envision anyone beating Navratilova.

She finished 1982 by defeating Chris Evert Lloyd (Evert, Tracy Austin, Pam Shriver and Wendy Turnbull of the top 10 will be missing this week) in the Toyota Championships final. That left no doubt who was No. 1. Privately, Navratilova seethed that there was any question at all. "Do I feel vindicated?" she said. "Vindicated sounds too bitter. I feel redeemed. Redeemed."

Perhaps 1983 will be a year of redemption for Andrea Jaeger (No. 3), for Austin (No. 4) and for Hana Mandlikova (No. 7). All three were frequently injured last year and their games suffered. When they say they are looking forward to the new year, they aren't kidding.

"Jaeger had a funny end of the year," Navratilova said. "She beat Chris three times last year. Then she did nothing. These young kids have got to watch out. Tracy was first and Andrea followed right in her footsteps. Mentally they can take it more than they can physically. When the physical falls apart, then the mental falls apart."

Physically, Navratilova fell apart in the third set of the Open, when a case of toxoplasmosis sapped her strength. "I had to hoist myself up with my arms because my legs couldn't get up in the final set," she said. The side effects can be much worse, she said: blindness, sometimes even death. "Worse things happen than losing the U.S. Open," she said.

Her year could not have been much better. She won 15 of 18 tournaments, including Wimbledon and the French Open. She lost only to Sylvia Hanika in the Avon Championship final in March, to Shriver at the Open and to Evert in the Australian Open final.

She felt she had made her case for the No. 1 ranking long before she arrived at the confrontation with Evert in New Jersey. She had played more matches on more surfaces and won 96.8 per cent of them.

"The numbers speak for themselves," she said. "The U.S. Open is suddenly bigger than Wimbledon because I didn't win it."

For a moment before the match, she said, "part of me was wondering, 'What if I lost?' I almost had a bit of self-destructiveness because I was so curious what would happen."

It did not happen, mostly because of the things Navratilova learned about herself in 1982. "I reached a new level in performance intensity," she said. "Now, knowing what it is it's hard to slack off. But, I don't know how long I can keep it up.

"I'm not old. But I slacked off at the Australian Open and it showed. I never quite reached my form. I was a nervous wreck. I was not quite prepared. I realized this year, I have to give it a lot. I have to have a good practice if I want to have a good match. You can't start beating your chest five minutes before you go on and expect to win.

"I guess I learned I can do it if I put my mind to it. Chris always says if she is right emotionally, she can't be beat. Now, I feel the same way. I was tough."