She saved the best for last. The best tennis, the best scene, the best memories. In the end, Martina Navratilova left Czechoslovakia a heroine to those she left behind and to those she adopted.
With a remarkable display of shotmaking that put an emphatic exclamation point on her week, Navratilova defeated Hana Mandlikova, 7-5, 6-1, this afternoon to clinch the 1986 Federation Cup for the United States.
Navratilova's victory gave the United States the clinching point in a 3-0 victory over Czechoslovakia after Chris Evert Lloyd, clearly struggling on a bad knee, had hung on to defeat Helena Sukova, 7-5, 7-6 (7-5), in the opening match.
On any other day, in any other setting, Evert's victory would have been worthy of many flowery words. She won on grit and memory, refusing to give in to a younger, stronger, healthier opponent who was being urged on by 7,000 fans in Stvanice Stadium.
But just as this has been Navratilova's week, this, too, was her day. On a breathtaking summer afternoon, she wrote a storybook ending to an extraordinary tale. She entered this stadium one week ago wondering what she would find 11 years after defecting. She left today with all doubts erased, the cheers ringing in her ears.
"Maybe I wrote my book too soon," she said with a smile. "This certainly would have been a great last chapter. I've enjoyed living this week, and I know I'll enjoy remembering it. The whole experience has been beyond my wildest dreams."
From the very first day, there was no doubt how the Czech people felt about the woman who has officially not existed here since leaving in 1975. And, with each passing day, the relationship between Navratilova and the fans grew warmer and warmer. Today, it reached an emotional crescendo, first during her match and finally during the awards ceremony.
"When we all heard that Martina was coming back here to play, not really knowing how people would react to her, we all wanted to come and try to help her win," Evert said. "We all did this for her and, Martina, we dedicate this Federation Cup to you."
Evert certainly deserves a good chunk of the credit for this victory. After struggling all week on a sore left knee, she will have it examined when she returns home to Florida, with the possibility of an arthroscope awaiting her. "We just don't know yet," she said. "But never being injured before, this was kind of strange for me."
Today she could barely serve at times because of it. And when a final Sukova lunge volley landed just wide on match point, she threw her racket in the air in delight. She had hung in and done her job, which this week was to set the stage for Navratilova.
Without question, this will be remembered as Navratilova's Federation Cup. Mandlikova was a willing and eager opponent today, matching Navratilova shot for shot for most of the first set.
But the match turned with Mandlikova serving at 5-6. Leading, 40-0, one point from creating a tie breaker, Mandlikova lost her concentration for a moment. That was all Navratilova needed. She won five straight points, whipping a backhand return at Mandlikova's feet to reach set point and then watching as Mandlikova shocked everyone with a double fault.
"I felt very good when I went out there," Navratilova said. "I was a little nervous watching Chris' match, because if it had gone a third set it might have been really tight. But when she won, I felt pretty good going out to play."
Once she had the first set, Navratilova was like a runaway train. Nothing was going to stop her. With each shot, she seemed to raise her game a notch. Mandlikova might have wanted to win this match in this stadium as much as any she has played. But she was facing a player who was not going to be denied this moment.
At 1-all, Navratilova made a circus shot, lunging for a backhand volley that had looked like a sure Mandlikova winner and slapping it cross court past Mandlikova. At 2-1, she got to a Mandlikova volley that looked unreachable and buggy-whipped a forehand down the line. Mandlikova could only tap her racket strings in appreciation of the shot. Two more winners in that game, the last a looping backhand, and she had the break for 3-1.
From there, she was a juggernaut. The crowd knew that Czechoslovakia was not going to win this day. So it basked in the glow of Navratilova's game and cheered her on.
The final game was a tennis clinic: four straight winners, the last one another lunging backhand volley, picking off one final Mandlikova rocket in midair and sending it back beyond her reach. It was over, 70 minutes of virtuoso tennis, the prodigal daughter showing once and for all that she had returned home the best tennis player in the world.
"I'm glad I was able to come back and play well," Navratilova said. "That was really a concern for me. I wanted everyone here to see me at my best if it was possible.
"You can't really compare this to any of the other things I've done. It's different. You're playing for your country, that's one thing. But for me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It will never happen again. I'm glad it happened at a point in my life when I'm able to appreciate things while they're happening."
The end of the tennis was only the beginning of the fun. The crowd, which was a superb audience all week, stood to applaud both players after match point. Evert came down from her seat, and shook Navratilova's hand. Then, as Navratilova and Mandlikova exited, each with an arm around the other's shoulders, Evert stood with everyone else and applauded.
But that was only a prelude. As the Czech team returned to the court for the awards ceremony, the applause was warm. But it was when the U.S. team followed that the place exploded. Mandlikova and Sukova were critical of this reaction later. They did not understand that this was a love-fest and only one person really mattered.
It was fitting then, that as the No. 1 player on the U.S. team, Navratilova formally accepted the Cup. When she began to speak to the crowd in English, they shouted, "Czech, Czech." So, she spoke Czech. "That made me a little nervous," she said. "I hadn't given a speech in Czech in a long time. I would have preferred to speak English."
In Czech, she thanked all the right people and the fans. She thanked her teammates, Evert, Pam Shriver and Zina Garrison and U.S. captain Marty Riessen. Finally, with the stadium silent, she said: "I don't have to tell you how special it has been for me to come back this week, to be here again. I only hope it's not another 11 years before I come back again."
That brought the house down. They cheered and stomped and screamed and wouldn't stop. Standing there, drinking it all in, Navratilova, who had fought her tears a week ago, wept unabashedly, at one point burying her head on Shriver's shoulder.
Then she turned and waved one last time, her eyes taking in the scene. Afterward, when Evert and Shriver tried to talk about the awards ceremony, they also began crying. And when Navratilova tried one more time to thank them, she managed to say, "I'm glad I could share this with you," before choking up again.
Perhaps it all sounds melodramatic, but the emotions were real. In a sense, they had been pent up inside Navratilova for 11 years. She missed her homeland: the sights, the sounds, the people. As they watched her this week, her teammates -- longtime rivals and longtime friends -- understood, at least in some small way, the pain Navratilova undoubtedly felt when she believed she might never see her home again.
And, in the end, they also understood the overwhelming joy she felt when it was apparent that the people here not only remembered her, but reveled in what she had become.
Eleven years later, Martina Navratilova came home. And found it was still home.