For almost two hours today, Martina Navratilova was a kid again. She was back home, playing tennis before a crowd that cheered her every move. The No. 1 court of Stvanice Stadium was her sandbox, and she frolicked, showing off all the tricks she has learned in the last 11 years.
It was merely a footnote that she won her singles match on clay in 40 minutes and her doubles in 45 to help the United States sweep China, 3-0, in the opening round of Federation Cup play. What was most gratifying to Navratilova was that, quite clearly, she still is a heroine to the people of the country she left behind when she defected to the United States in 1975.
"The crowd was fantastic," Navratilova said. "The response was just so wonderful that I got to the point where I just wanted to show the people what I could do."
She showed them all she needed to in sweeping past China's No. 1 player, Xinyi Li, 6-1, 6-0. Xinyi, who is ranked 309th in the world, was so thrilled to be on the same court with Navratilova that when the match was over, she had her captain, Mingau Gu, take a snapshot of the two of them together.
Xinyi was not the only person delighted to be in the same place with Navratilova. Long before the match started, at least 2,000 people had taken up every inch of space around the court, which has only 1,000 seats. They pushed and shoved for position while Zina Garrison -- playing in place of Chris Evert Lloyd, who sat out today with what she called a little tendinitis in her left knee -- was winning the opening match.
Even though the United States is the No. 1 seed in this women's version of the Davis Cup, the match was not scheduled for center court. Nevertheless, everyone wanted to see Navratilova, and when she walked on court, those seated in the stadium moved to the back row or the alleyways so they could peer onto the outside court.
The minute Navratilova walked into the sweltering afternoon sun, the crowd burst into applause, far more enthusiastic than the warm applause she had received during Sunday's opening ceremonies.
Navratilova's face lit up. "I didn't get nervous until just before I went out there," she said. "Then I got a little nervous. But when I walked out and heard the people, it excited me. I was really psyched up to play by the time we started."
Xinyi, who plays serve and volley, did her best. A loose third game gave Xinyi her only game, and from that point on, Navratilova overpowered her. She played all her shots: crushed forehands, ripped backhands and pulverized overheads.
Her winners drew oohs and aahs and shouts of joy. It was a strange scene at times. A railroad track runs past the court, and each time a train would pass, people would hang from the windows to peer at the match. It seemed as if half the world were attempting to crash it.
Nothing was going to distract Navratilova. She was having too much fun. She joked with the fans in Czech. She laughed when Xinyi won a point and the tiny contingent of Chinese fans clapped. She shrugged and laughed when someone implored her not to win so quickly.
Xinyi hung on for 40 minutes, winning nine points in each set. When it was over, the crowd screamed its approval and Navratilova waved and departed, blowing kisses. The doubles, which Navratilova won with Pam Shriver, involved more of the same, as the ballboys made a mad dash for Navratilova and sought autographs the moment the match ended.
It was another day in a remarkable homecoming. On Monday, Navratilova and her parents walked the streets of her hometown, Revnice, and were stopped constantly by people who wanted to welcome her back, to congratulate her.
"Every day, things feel more familiar to me," she said. "It feels less and less like 11 years have passed every day. I thought everybody would be friendly and nice, but I didn't expect them to be as warm as they have been.
"Today was an emotional and happy experience for me. I felt like there was extra added pressure because I haven't been here for so long. This was like a chapter that I am finally able to finish that has been sitting open for a long time."