PARIS -- When they handed Steffi Graf the silver cup that is named for Suzanne Lenglen Saturday afternoon, the West German teen-ager acted like a teen-ager, if only for a second. She stood there, frozen, not quit sure what to do.

Suddenly, from two steps below her on the victory stand in Roland Garros Stadium, Graf heard a voice softly coaching her. "Come on, hoist it up, you won it, you deserve it. Hoist it up for everyone to see."

The voice belonged to Martina Navratilova.

If there ever was a moment when a loser had the right to be a tad ungracious, this was it. And yet, there was Navratilova, coaching the kid who will undoubtedly succeed her as the best women's tennis player in the world, helping her in a moment when others would only have been bitter. She had lost the French Open final, 6-4, 4-6, 8-6 to Graf, in a match she thought she had won. She had lost two straight matches to the same player for the first time since 1981. She had lost a taut, three-set final here for a third straight year.

And yet, Navratilova made no excuses, didn't cry or whine or try to detract from what Graf had done. But that has never been her style. "I'll be back next year," she told the crowd. "Hang around. Maybe I'll win this thing yet."

People have never really given Navratilova her due. As a tennis player, they have. How can anyone deny the greatness of someone who has won 15 Grand Slam titles, including seven Wimbledons, and put together the two longest match winning streaks ever?

But as a person, it has been more difficult. Some won't accept her as an American because she is Czechoslovakian by birth. Others won't accept her because she has acknowledged she is bisexual. And then there are those who don't like her because she became a better player than Chris Evert.

Evert has been Navratilova's blessing and her curse. Both have been blessed all these years by the presence of the other. They have pushed each other to better tennis, created some of the most dramatic matches ever played and, together, have been the linchpins of the game for 15 years.

But because Evert is Evert, people have been slow to appreciate Navratilova. Evert has been the world's darling since she was 16, so blond, so cute, so gracious. Navratilova was a fat little kid -- "I looked like Porky Pig" -- when she first came on the tour as a 16-year-old. She is slender now, blond like Evert, with an easy smile that makes people comfortable.

She understands that people have always compared her to Evert on appearance, on being from Prague instead of Fort Lauderdale and on who they have had relationships with. Long ago, Navratilova made her peace with this. Evert would be the darling. She would be the champion.

But as she has gotten older, Navratilova has, ever so slowly, won people over. They hooted her until she cried during the 1984 U.S. Open final against Evert but pulled madly for her when Graf had her in trouble there in the semifinals last year. Saturday, they cheered her in Roland Garros, a place where she once spoke to the fans in French to win them over.

"I think people have slowly come around to understanding me here," she said Saturday. "I think they appreciate the fact that I never say die, and I like them for that. I like playing here now. I enjoy them, I think they enjoy me."

They enjoyed her Saturday, just as they enjoyed Graf. There is a tendency to root for the youngster, the underdog, the one who never has won. And Graf's tenacity was to be admired. Few people beat the woman who is arguably the best player of all time when they trail, 5-3, in the third set. Graf did that.

Because she did that, and because she has won 39 matches and seven straight tournaments, some are saying Graf is now the best player in the world. Navratilova is not ready to abdicate.

"I'm not ready to step down yet," she said. "Don't dethrone me until I've stepped down." Her eyes narrowed for a minute. "I'm tired of it."

Only then did her frustration show. The same question had been raised in Rome when Gabriela Sabatini, the game's other star teen-ager, beat her in the semifinals. Navratilova thinks the Grand Slams matter. Saturday certainly mattered. But she lost here last year and ended up putting together a superb year, winning Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Virginia Slims Championships.

"I'm disappointed I lost the match, but I'm happy that I played well enough that I could have won on clay," she said. "A month ago, I was playing so bad I thought I might not even win Wimbledon. Now, though, I feel like I'm back. I've got my concentration back, my fight, my spirit. For the rest of the year, I feel good."

She is 30 and she knows that Graf is going to surpass her at some point. But she isn't going to go easily. She held her off at the Open last year, routed her in November -- Graf's last loss -- and perhaps should have won Saturday.

"I think Steffi felt sorry for me, which I didn't expect," Navratilova said. "She has a good heart. She's a good kid. I'm glad she's out here pushing me. I think she's giving women's tennis a shot in the arm. She's good for the game."

And perhaps someday Graf will be a special champion. But not yet. For years now, they have written odes to Evert. They have called her, "Chris America," and, "Amazing Grace," and the most gracious champion in the game's history.

Evert is a marvel. But maybe, just maybe, people will learn to marvel at Navratilova. Saturday evening, she brushed off those who might compliment her for helping Graf on the victory stand. "She'd just never been there before," she said. "I'm sure she'll be up there again. Next time, she'll know what to do. She won't need my advice."

Maybe not on how to hold a trophy. But when it comes to being a champion, a truly special one, Martina Navratilova has been giving people lessons for years.