From the dining room of Martina Navratilova's house at Wimbledon, she can hear the crowd roaring for somebody else. Through the red roses and pink geraniums in her garden, she can see the All-England Lawn Tennis club 100 yards away, the lines of people waiting to get in. "You can hear it," she said. "You can see the scoreboard on Court 2 and 3."
In the mornings, if the alarm clock doesn't go off, the tournament sounds wake her. "At 10 a.m., the car park warning goes out," she said. ' "Car park one, two, three, four, five. Please acknowledge.' "
This is Wimbledon. This is madness. Crowds cluster by the competitors' entrance, cameras in hand, when they could be watching competition. They camp out all night on sidewalks for a chance to see a third-round match.
How, in the midst of chaos, do you preserve equilibrium, a sense of normalcy and proportion? Some players, like John McEnroe, stay as far away as possible, as often as possible. Others stay at posh London hotels. For Navratilova, the defending champion, the answer is a rented, three-bedroom house across the street that could be a million miles away.
"Secluded but accessible," she said. "There's the countryside, the flowers, it's pretty. You look at the garden and the roses. The birds are chirping. At midnight one night, I heard a horse clopping down the streets.
"I love the atmosphere. I don't see the madness of the crowd. I like to be near. I feel very comfortable here, I always have. I'm sounding like Billie Jean. The week before, when I was walking up the stairs the first time, I caught a glimpse of the trophy and the sign that says, 'If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same . . . ' It's good to be back. It feels like home."
She came a week early to familiarize herself with the spirits of the place. "Last year and this year, I came early to practice. When there is no one around, only the groundskeepers and the janitors and the people getting ready, painting the walls, it's quiet. When you see it so serene, it doesn't strike you as a madhouse. If you walk into your own house and there is no one there, you're at peace. If you walk in and there's a surprise party for 100 people, you're not at peace."
The rented house is not quite a home. It is filled with boxes of rackets for the Russian players, delivered by mistake, an ultrasound machine, a Betamax (for viewing tapes of matches and old movies), china figurines belonging to the owners and several friends, including Nancy Lieberman. The bike she bought for escaping into the countryside is parked in the foyer. She brought a basketball, thinking she and Lieberman might play. It remains uninflated in the box.
Usually, she gets up at 9, practices for 2 1/2 hours when she's not playing, an hour and a half if she is, and another half hour after a match if she is dissatisfied with her performance. The hardest thing, she says, "is finding enough white clothes to wear."
That and the waiting. "There's only seven matches to play and two weeks to do it," she said.
"It's a marathon, but one day it's a quarter-mile, the next day it's a mile and the next a 100-yard dash. You'd better be quick off the mark."
She says she has never been so relaxed here. "Why should you get excited because this is Wimbledon? If something would upset you on any other day, by all means, get upset. But if it wouldn't upset you three weeks ago, it shouldn't upset you now. That's what the pressure is all about, treating it all the same way."
She walks to the court, past the people in line waiting to see her play. "It's funny," she said. "They're very orderly. They're all lined up there. It's like a delayed reaction; by then my back is to them. Not one has walked up and asked for an autograph. I think they're too afraid of losing their place in the queue."
Her autograph isn't worth that. Nobody's is, she says, "unless it's Katharine Hepburn. Then I would climb the fence."
She is sitting with her feet up in the dining room. "She likes to put her feet up, too," she said, meaning Hepburn. "Here I am saying, I'm just like Katharine Hepburn because I've got my feet up. I'd like to age like her. She has some air, some aura. Like she's got it all together or at least she makes people think she does."
It is not surprising that Navratilova admires her so. For so long, it was clear that Navratilova did not have it all together. Now, it seems she does. Although she has not won a Grand Slam event since her third Wimbledon last year, she has dominated women's tennis. She has lost only once this year, to Kathy Horvath in the French Open. Last year, she became the all-time leading prize money winner in the women's tennis and won 90 of 93 matches (41 straight during one stretch).
With her oilless, meatless, sugarless diet, supervised by Dr. Robert Haas (who also sits at courtside charting matches by computer), she almost seems bionic. "Want to cut off my arm and see the circuits?" she said, smiling.
"She is that much faster, that much quicker, that much stronger than the rest of us," said Virginia Wade. "She's just all over the place. She just makes everyone else look like the one who came in last in the race."
Last fall, she lost in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open to Pam Shriver and later revealed that she had been suffering from toxoplasmosis , a blood disease she contracted from eating contaminated meat. Some people felt that she should not have raised the subject, that it sounded like she was making an excuse. "I was fighting with myself, 'Should I say something?' Nancy said she was going to do it so I figured I might as well."
After she lost to Horvath, Navratilova had a falling-out with her coach, Renee Richards, over strategy and the amount of time Richards was devoting to her medical practice. "Renee was not the reason I lost the match," she said. "I take the credit for losing. My fault was following her advice to a T, which has been my strength. But that time, it was my downfall."
Soon after, Richards was replaced by Mike Estep, an old friend from World Team Tennis days. "I call it a mutual misunderstanding," she said of Richards. "She gave me a set of conditions under which she would work, which she had done before. They were not acceptable. So in a way, she was fired. I think she wanted all the credit."
Navratilova seems tougher now. Perhaps, it is the result of believing in herself (which can be habit forming).
Perhaps, it is a response to Chris Evert Lloyd's legendary cool. When Evert lost Friday in the third round, and lost her chance for the Grand Slam, Navratilova understood. "I've been there," she said.
But she also wished she had been the one to end it. "I'm much more of a hard-nose," she said. "I'm not as vulnerable as I used to be. I guess that's why some people don't like me, say I'm making excuses. They try to bring me down because I'm not as vulnerable as I used to be. If you have a good heart, you like me because you know I have a good heart. If you don't, then I can't help you."
She is a complicated, intelligent woman, whose defection from Czechoslovakia made her both an independent and a dependent soul. "You have to be a little insecure to want to have to prove yourself day in and day out, put your reputation on the line," she said. "At the same time, there is an immediate reward and I like the immediate reward."
Especially the one that comes once a year, at the end of Wimbledon, when you curtsy to the royals and the trophy is yours. "It's such a fleeting moment yet it seems to go on forever," she said. "You only get to hold the trophy for two or three minutes. And the photographers are saying, 'This way, Martina.' And you just want to smile to the world and say, 'Damn, I've done it again.' Now I can say, 'again.' It's a very powerful drug, that trophy."