Usually, when she knows she has a match in hand, Martina Navratilova starts singing, "Turn out the lights, the party's over." Today, she said, "When they handed me the microphone, I was going to sing, win or lose, 'Start spreading the news.' But I got too shaky."
In that moment, when New York, New York, and the U.S. Open were finally hers, there were no words--just a breath so deep it seemed to suck the air right out of the stadium, then a sigh of relief.
After 11 years of trying and failing and crying and choking on the questions about this lapse in her record, Navratilova won her first U.S. Open championship the way she wanted to, beating Chris Evert Lloyd, 6-1, 6-3, in a victory so definitive it answered all the questions before they were asked.
Navratilova watched nervously as Evert's last backhand sailed long, 73 minutes after the match began. "I wasn't sure it was going to go out," she said. "At that point, your vision becomes a little blurred. I was surprised at how long it really was. When it landed, it was just total relief and ecstasy, you could say. Well, I don't know if I'd go that far. You can use any adjective that will fit. Use a good one."
When they shook hands at the net, it seemed that the torch was passed forever. Evert conceded only that she had played badly. "I've played a lot of matches where I've been losing and I hate to lose so much that I switch to another gear," Evert said.
The other day, before she knew she would play Evert in the final, Navratilova said it did not matter whom she played. Some people scoffed, knowing Navratilova wanted to win the one tournament she had never won by beating the woman who had won it six times, the woman who is her best competition. This morning, in practice, Navratilova looked over at a reporter and said, "You got your wish." Pause. "So did I."
A fan assured her she would get her wish to win the Open. "I better," Navratilova said.
Better is the operative word. Navratilova did not lose a set in winning Wimbledon and the Open, and set a record for the fewest games lost (19) in seven rounds at the Open. Her serve was broken four times in seven matches, once today.
Navratilova served and volleyed nearly to perfection. She attacked Evert's first serve and second serve, making it difficult for Evert to establish any rhythm on her ground strokes (12 unforced errors to 17 winners).
Evert, 0-5 against Navratilova this year (30-24 lifetime), said, "One of the reasons I haven't been as consistent this year with her is because I made a lot of errors.
"She comes to the net and hits a deep approach shot. I have two choices: I can go for a passing shot or I can hit it right to her. If I hit it right to her I'm going to lose the point 90 percent of the time because she has such a good volley."
Navratilova won the first three games in seven minutes, less time than it took Andrea Jaeger to play one point this week. The first set was over in 25 minutes. The crowd at the National Tennis Center was quiet, perhaps numb, not knowing quite what to make of it.
Evert must have been shell-shocked, too. Navratilova broke in the first game of the second set as Evert made three errors. At 30-40, she decided to change her tactics and came in. Evert lunged for a first volley, a forehand down the line, but was passed by a second.
In the third game, the crowd pleaded for her to save her pride, along with two break points. She did.
For a game, Navratilova wavered. Evert hit out, playing more aggressively. Navratilova double-faulted twice, once for 0-15 and once on game point, as Evert broke for 2-2 and held for 3-2. Evert sensed a vulnerability but said she "wasn't playing well enough to take advantage of it."
Soon, it was clear why. Navratilova broke at love for 4-3, as Evert made three errors. In the next game, just as Evert was climbing back into it, Navratilova made a shot that made the difference between them irrefutable.
On game point, Evert lobbed, as she had done all day. For the second time in the match, Navratilova ran back under the ball, whirled around and hit a forehand winner down the line. She jumped in the air, her fists pumping, her insides churning.
Unnerved, Evert served and fell behind, 0-40. Three times she saved match points as Navratilova made errors that are the result of being overanxious after 11 years. In the locker room today, she told herself, "God, I've waited for two years. I better do it now. Five minutes before the match, my knees started knocking and I thought, 'The time is now.' "
A long backhand lob gave Navratilova her fourth match point. A backhand error long gave her the championship and $120,000 for the victory, $500,000 in bonuses, a total of $6,089,756 in career earnings--more than any tennis player ever.
"She's human," Evert said. "We'll see how long her domination lasts."
How long? "Maybe you can compare me to 'M*A*S*H,' " said Navratilova, who has won 156 of 160 matches in 1982-83. "I guess it depends on the ratings."
She's No. 1.