They should make Martina Navratilova play right-handed in a raincoat with folding chairs on her side of the court. Give the poor victims the doubles alleys and let them have three serves. There is about women's tennis today a mood articulated by Marie Antoinette as a friend sought to console her. "Don't worry," Marie said. "The executioner's blade is sharp and my neck is very slender."
Devotees of esoterica, whatever they are, scurried around the press box at the U.S. Open today. They were in search of more evidence of Navratilova's dominance. We know she hasn't lost a set, but has she lost a service game? Has she lost three straight points? How needless the search. Do they send surveyors to the Himalayas to tell us Mt. Everest is a tall chunk of rock?
Navratilova stands so high above her contemporaries as to demand examination as the greatest women's player ever. The last two years, she has won 26 of her 30 tournaments. She has won 155 matches and lost four. She won Wimbledon both seasons. She has done everything except what she will try to do here Saturday: win the U.S. Open.
The executioner's blade is very sharp when it takes the shape of Navratilova's racket. Every neck is delicate under its approach. Pam Shriver's felt the cool breeze this afternoon in a 6-2, 6-1 defeat. Come Saturday afternoon, Chris Evert Lloyd walks before Navratilova for a match that will go a ways to telling us what history will say of Navratilova.
We know about Chrissie. The queen. Six times the U.S. Open champion, three times the Wimbledon champion. When they paint a pretty picture of what women's tennis ought to be, they'll have Chrissie smiling with a pink headband around her long blond hair. Helen Wills Moody, Maureen Connolly, Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Chris Evert Lloyd--the great ones. They won, it seemed, forever.
Four Wimbledon championships is enough to get Navratilova into that picture. The absence of a U.S. Open championship on her resume is, she said today, one reason she continues to push against possibility. "I want to win this tournament," she said, "and the Grand Slam is always in the back of my mind."
Only great ones imagine winning all the major tournaments consecutively. Only single-minded visionaries say it out loud. What we're seeing with Navratilova these last two years is the first arrival of the great athlete, burning to be remembered, in women's tennis.
It is a wonderful sight. Shriver knows it. "Start with the fact she plays left-handed. It's hard to face a lefty, playing righties all the time. Besides that, she moves better than the other girls, volleys better, hits the overhead better. There are no weaknesses."
Shriver shrugged. "For someone to beat her, Martina has to lose the match."
Navratilova was a chubby, hyperemotional Czech of 16 when she first met the queen in pink. Chris Evert has changed only her name. Navratilova now is 26, an American (sort of, living in Dallas). She is an athletic wonder, a running back in a field of cheerleaders, and her emotional energies now are directed at winning.
The record shows Navratilova's growth. Evert won 23 of their first 26 matches. Navratilova has won 20 of the last 27, three straight this year. The torch moved from Court to King to Evert. It is moving again.
Evert, like all the great ones, doesn't want to let go. Every chance she gets, Evert puts in a reminder--smiling sweetly--that Navratilova hasn't been great very long.
Evert praises Navratilova. Each sentence comes with a qualifier, delivered with a smile. Should she say the words with clenched teeth, Evert would come off a hungry tigress. Smiling, she can say, "Martina's never won here, so nerves might enter in. I've won it six times, so there's no pressure on me. But Martina is playing better this year, so you never know . . . "
Playing better this year, the queen said. "I've been mentally tough my whole career, since I was 6 years old," Evert said. "Martina has only acquired it the last two years. Her being a great athlete is more of a reason she's done well than her mental attitude."
Amazing. Evert knocks the athletic will of a four-time Wimbledon champion. Them's fighting words in most parts.
Listen to this. "I still feel that (the mental toughness bit) could be a vulnerable area for her if anybody got close enough to her in a match."
The touchy part of any session with Evert comes when she is asked about Navratilova's ranking with great players. Queen Chrissie, never forget it, could order the guillotine dropped on an enemy as she smiled and said, "So slender, such a pretty neck."
Q. People say Martina's the best ever, but you've won six Opens. Is that incentive for this final?
Evert: "They called Billie Jean the best ever, and then when I was dominating they called me the best. It happens every time a great player comes along and dominates . . . I can't stand it when they are comparing Martina with Helen Wills Moody or me with Maureen Connolly. The times and conditions are different.
"Martina's really only had two great years. She had eight average or pretty good years. I feel I've had seven great years. You're dealing with pride, so it's a pretty sensitive subject. I think there's no doubt about it that she would need to play at this level for another five or six years to prove herself the greatest."