One word best describes Hana Mandlikova's three-set victory over Martina Navratilova in the women's final of Saturday's U.S. Open: finally.

Finally, Mandlikova overcame herself. Finally, she put together two superb matches in one 24-hour stretch. Finally, she began living up to the potential she exhibited when she burst upon the tennis scene by reaching four straight Grand Slam tournament finals in 1980 and 1981, winning two of them.

She was 19 then, and the clear heir to the Navratilova-Chris Evert Lloyd throne. But since then, her tennis has been erratic. She can lose to a player such as Elizabeth Smylie in the third round at Wimbledon. She can almost lose to a player such as Elise Burgin in the second round of the French Open.

She can also be the only woman to beat Navratilova and Evert twice in the same year and the first woman in four years to beat them back to back.

"I always thought I could play at their level, so it is very special to finally do it in one tournament," Mandlikova said.

That is what will make the next few months fascinating. Suddenly, there is a knock on the penthouse door so closely guarded by Navratilova/Evert in recent years.

Neither Navratilova nor Evert was willing to accept Mandlikova into their exclusive club based on one tournament. "I think she has to do it a few more times," Evert said, then with a smile, added, "She's definitely No. 3 right now."

As in closer to No. 4 than No. 1 or No. 2. Or, as Navratilova put it, "She had a great tournament -- one great tournament."

That great tournament means that for the first time since 1981 -- 15 championships -- someone other than Navratilova and Evert has won a Grand Slam event. Now, each of the three women has a Grand Slam title this year and if, as expected, all three play in the Australian Open, there will be an added sense of suspense in women's tennis.

Mandlikova has worked extremely hard this year. Before the French Open, she put herself through a conditioning program, getting herself into the best physical shape of her life. But that has never been her problem. At 23, she is considered the best athlete on the tour. It has been her mental attitude that has been questioned.

That may be best explained by something she said after her 7-6 (7-3), 1-6, 7-6 (7-2) victory over Navratilova. When someone asked her when she had sat down with her coach, Betty Stove, to discuss tactics, Mandlikova said, "About 15 minutes before the match. If we had done it sooner, I would have forgotten what she told me."

That has been Mandlikova.

"Everybody has to grow up," she said. "Some people do it faster than others. It has taken me a while, but now I feel as if I have learned a lot in the last year."

The last year has been a fascinating one for women's tennis. Since Evert and Navratilova played their superb final here, Navratilova's streak of six straight Grand Slam tournament victories was ended in Australia by Helena Sukova. Then, Evert and Navratilova staged their epic French final, followed by Navratilova's revenge at Wimbledon. Now, Mandlikova is a factor.

And while Evert must now contemplate how long she will go on, with her 31st birthday three months off, and while Navratilova must wonder if her era of domination is over (one Grand Slam title in her last four attempts), Mandlikova must wonder if she can sustain her remarkable achievements.

"I hope I can do it again," she said with a smile. Then, as she left, Mandlikova forgot her trophy. That was okay, though. Everybody knew who it belonged to.

In the Open's women's doubles final, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch of West Germany and Helena Sukova of Czechoslovakia upset top-seeded Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver, 6-7 (5-7), 6-2, 6-3.

The winners split $65,000, Navratilova and Shriver $32,500.