PARIS, JUNE 6 -- Nine months later, Steffi Graf had match point four. At the U.S. Open last fall, when she had Martina Navratilova squarely in her sights, the old champion reacted with three steely-eyed winners. Not yet, she was telling Graf, you aren't a champion just yet.

Today though, after two hours of gripping tennis, Navratilova slipped a tiny step off her pedestal. On this fateful match point, with 17,000 people in Roland Garros Stadium holding their breath, she double faulted. For a moment, Graf didn't move, stunned by the error. Then, when she understood that she had just become the youngest female French Open champion in history, she broke down as the two women shook hands at the net.

Graf, 17, won today, 6-4, 4-6, 8-6, in a match that twisted and turned much like the swirling winds that made conditions so tough all afternoon. It was her 39th straight victory, dating back to a November loss to Navratilova in the Virginia Slims Championships.

"I've had an unbelievable six months," Graf said. "After the match at the U.S. Open {Navratilova won a 10-8 third-set tie breaker}, I didn't think we could play a closer match. Today, though, I think we did."

Navratilova's double fault was an unlikely and sad ending to a match filled with winners and and gutsy comeback tennis, one that proved Graf is truly a champion on the rise while also making it clear that Navratilova is a long way from being ready to step aside for her.

"I'm glad I won," Graf told the crowd. "But I'm also a little sad for Martina."

For Navratilova, this loss was truly a sad one. She served for the match once, had an easy sitter to break serve at 6-all and lost on a day when she was one or two shots from victory. This marked the third straight year she has lost a wrenching three-set final here. The previous two years it was to her arch rival Chris Evert. Today, it was to the challenger to her throne.

"I still believe I'll win here again," said Navratilova, who has won the French twice. "It's tougher for me on clay but I played well enough to win." She paused and shook her head. "I should have won today, dad-gum it."

Could have won is probably fairer to both women. Although the swirlng winds made play difficult, they played briskly and aggressively from the start. Graf broke first, at 3-2 in the first set, but Navratilova broke right back. At 4-all, Graf saved a break point, won the game and then shocked everyone by breaking at love for the set, producing three sparkling winners to do it. The last was a wonderful backhand pass off a Navratilova overhead, Graf picking the ball off as if it were a hanging curve and ripping it.

She had one set, but a long way to go. Especially against Navratilova. Not since the first of her 24 Grand Slam finals -- the 1975 Australian Open -- has Navratilova been beaten in straight sets. Today was no different. She went up a break, but let Graf break back to 4-4. At that moment, it appeared Graf might be in control.

But aggressive as ever, Navratilova jumped on a loose Graf game to break again and lead, 5-4. This was one of the few games in the entire match that Navratilova got some second serves -- Graf served 80 percent for the match -- and she jumped on them, ramming a backhand return down Graf's throat at 15-40 to win the game.

Navratilova clenched her fists, bobbed her head and gave herself a pep talk going to the chair. She stormed out a moment later and held at love for the set, finishing with a big serve.

It was one set all. They had played 69 minutes. The match was only beginning. "What bothers me," Navratilova said later, "is that I had so many chances early in the set and let her get away. I had her, 15-40, in the first, 15-40, in the third and she won both games. It could have been 6-1 or 6-2. But she played great on the big points when she was down. She never missed a shot."

What makes Graf so special is her willingness to play boldly when in trouble. On one of the break points, she threaded the needle with a backhand pass down the line. One inch to the left and the ball was wide. One inch to the right and Navratilova would have been on it, pounding a volley.

With Graf hanging on for dear life, they reached 2-all. But there, Navratilova did break through, climbing all over a second serve to put Graf at 30-40, then watching a Graf forehand crack the net. Graf slammed a ball to the turf while Navratilova pumped her fists. She had the lead and, she thought, control.

But Graf came right back, playing her best game. Four absolute winners came off her racket. All Navratilova could do was tap her strings in appreciation.

But Graf went down, 5-3, after Navratilova broke her again, attacking all the way, then held quickly. Navratilova was zoning now, charging the net on almost every ball, confident that she had Graf solved. Graf had been this way before. She trailed Gabriela Sabatini, 5-3, in the final set in the semifinals before coming back. But this time it was not against a 17-year-old who never had beaten her, this was against The Champion.

"I really wanted to end it on the 5-3 game," Navratilova said. "I thought I had her going a little. But she played a very strong game there. Still, I'm serving for the match."

Indeed she was. At 15-all, though, fate and the crowd and the wind intervened. Preparing to second serve, Navratilova noticed some photographers moving, getting into position for a possible match point. She pulled back. She walked up to the line again, pulled her racket back and, from the crowd, came several yells. "Come on!" Navratilova yelled, exasperated.

She went to serve again. Double fault. "The crowd probably did affect that one," Navratilova said. "I think I served when it was quiet instead of when I was ready. But in truth, they were both nervous double faults."

The next one came on the next point. "I was just going for that one," she said, "and I missed." The two double faults made it 15-40.

Navratilova saved one of the break points. But on the second one, Graf pounded a forehand return and Navratilova's lunging forehand volley sailed long. It was 5-5.

They proceeded routinely to 6-all, making this the third longest women's final on record. There, Navratilova had another break point after a gorgeous forehand winner. She attacked again and when Graf floated a backhand, it looked like Navratilova would serve for the match. But, again, fate and the wind came into play. A bit of clay dust blew towards Navratilova and her backhand volley cracked the net tape.

That was the last chance for her. Graf hit a gorgeous backhand lob and when Navratilova missed a forehand seconds later, Graf led, 7-6. She was the one strutting now, pumping her fists and talking aloud. Navratilova looked tired. "Not tired," she said. "But not happy."

At 15-all, Graf laced a backhand pass cross court. Navratilova saved the next point with a lovely scoop volley. It was 30-all. Still bold, Navratilova followed her serve in. Graf's return was low again and Navratilova lunged for it. Not good enough, she couldn't lift it over the net. As soon as the ball left her racket, Navratilova cried, "Oh, no!"

Match point. At the Open, Graf never converted. Today, she didn't have to. Navratilova went for a big first serve and missed. She went back, paused and heard someone cry, "Allez, Martina!" This time she stepped back and gathered herself. It didn't matter. The serve was an inch deep. It was over.

"I never expected to win a Grand Slam this soon," said Graf, who will be 18 next Sunday. "I don't think it's hit me yet that I've done it. Martina is still the number one player, but today I took a step, a big step closer. I'm closer now than ever before."

At least for today, though, Graf was exactly where she wanted to be, holding the French Open trophy in her hands for all the world to see.

TODAY'S MATCHES Women's doubles final

Martina Navratilova, Fort Worth-Pam Shriver, Lutherville, Md. (1), vs. Steffi Graf, West Germany-Gabriela Sabatini, Argentina (2). Men's singles final

Ivan Lendl, Czechoslovakia (1), vs. Mats Wilander, Sweden (4).