EASTBOURNE, ENGLAND, JUNE 20 -- For 10 years now, this picturesque seaside town has been a spa for Martina Navratilova. Each June, she comes here seeking confidence before Wimbledon. Always, it seems, she leaves with just that.

If you listen to her talk, or listen to her friends or rivals, there is a very definite connection between what happens here on the grass of Devonshire Park and what happens two weeks later on Centre Court. From 1982 through 1986, Navratilova came here and won the Pilkington Glass Championships. From 1982 through 1986, she won Wimbledon.

"If she wins here, it will help her confidence," her doubles partner, Pam Shriver, said this morning. "But if she loses, it will damage her confidence more than winning will help it."

This afternoon, the damage was done -- emphatically. Navratilova not only lost the final to Helena Sukova, she lost it in shocking fashion, blowing a 5-0 first-set lead and losing, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3.

The loss was the first for Navratilova on English grass since a semifinal loss at Wimbledon in 1981 -- 70 matches and 10 tournaments ago. It was the sixth straight tournament Navratilova has lost this year. She has not won since the Virginia Slims Championships in New York last November.

Throughout the string, Navratilova has insisted her game is not in any trouble. She has gone through a coaching change and her confidence just isn't what it used to be. "The arrogance you have when you're really in charge," Shriver said. "That's just not there."

If Shriver had some of that arrogance, Navratilova would not even have reached the final. This morning, finishing a rain-delayed semifinal, Shriver led Navratilova, 2-0, 40-0, in the last set. But she missed an easy backhand volley that would have meant a 3-0 lead, and promptly fell apart, losing 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

The final looked to be more of the same. Sukova last beat Navratilova in the Australian Open in 1984. That match ended Navratilova's record 74-match winning streak. Since then, Navratilova had beaten her 13 straight times. When she jumped to that quick 5-0 lead, it looked like an easy number 14.

"I don't know what happened," Navratilova said. "She certainly played much better, she played very well in fact. But I can't ever remember losing a set after leading, 5-0, certainly not on grass . . . . I'm really not sure what the problem is right now. The game is there, the shots are all there. At this point it's all emotional. Today, I was rolling and I let it get away. Right now, I'm not too confident. I really blew that match.

"I still think I'm the favorite for Wimbledon {she is top seed}," Navratilova said, not sounding convinced. "It's still grass and Centre Court is a lot different than Eastbourne."

Sukova, who beat Chris Evert in the quarterfinals here, is capable of brilliant tennis in streaks. Usually, though, Navratilova comes up with a big shot that stops the run, calmly takes control and goes on to win.

Not today. Down 0-5, Sukova began nailing everything. Her usually shaky backhand was producing winners so often that Navratilova thought about playing to the forehand. She raced back to 5-all, before Navratilova held serve for 6-5. They went to the tie breaker. Sukova led, 3-0, but Navratilova came back to 3-3 with a running forehand screamer down the line.

But with Sukova serving at 5-4, Navratilova ran around a second serve to set up a forehand -- and missed by a good 12 inches. That made it 6-4. Navratilova saved one set point, but on the second one double faulted. "Ridiculous," she said. "I've certainly found a lot of ways to lose this year."

In the second set, she lost her serve quickly to trail, 2-0. There were chances to break back, the best coming with Sukova up, 4-2. At 15-40, Navratilova had a sitter forehand with Sukova dead at the net. She cracked it into the tape.

Sukova served an ace, which Navratilova screamed was wide, and then held for a 5-2 lead. Although she blew three match points, Sukova finally closed out when one more Navratilova backhand sailed deep.

Okay, this is Eastbourne, not Wimbledon. But Navratilova's remarks to the crowd gave away her emotions.

As she routinely went through her thank-you's, she mentioned tour sponsor Virginia Slims. "They've been out here about 13 or 14 years," she said, "just like me."

Then a pause. "Maybe that's one year too long." There was a slight gasp. "No, no," she said, waving her hand. "I ain't done yet, I ain't done yet. It may take an act of Congress for me to win a tournament, but. . . ."