LONDON, JULY 3 -- For once, Martina Navratilova should have the crowd on her side. When you appear unbeatable, people hope to see you beaten. When you appear vulnerable, people pull for you.

Saturday, Navratilova will play her eighth Wimbledon final (9 a.m., WRC-TV-4), but never before has she appeared so vulnerable. In Steffi Graf, she is facing a razor-sharp opponent who has put to rest questions about whether she can play on grass.

Navratilova is playing now for history, going for a record sixth straight women's singles title and a record-equaling eighth overall. She has won 40 straight matches here since a 1981 semifinal loss to Chris Evert.

Evert may have played her last memorable match here Thursday, pushing Navratilova to the limit before losing, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4. Evert's assessment of the final illustrates how highly Graf is viewed by her peers.

"Martina's going to have to serve really well, like 80 or 90 percent, to win the match," Evert said. "That's her one big weapon. If she has to serve a lot of second serves, she's going to be in trouble the way Steffi returns."

This came moments after Evert lost to Navratilova after playing superb tennis -- "the best I can play" was her self-assessment. And yet, she all but said Graf was the favorite.

Evert is not alone in that opinion. Navratilova still is a superb grass-court player, and she has had an excellent tournament. She is confident now after what has been a difficult spring. And there is little doubt that her 7-0 record in Wimbledon finals, her experience on Centre Court, her intense pride, will work for her in this match.

"I feel very good about my tennis right now," said Navratilova, who brought in her former coach, Renee Richards, and worked on her serve this week with Australian Davis Cup captain Neale Fraser, like her a left-hander. "I'm serving very well {76 percent against Evert}, and I feel as if I can get to almost any ball. This is Wimbledon, this is what tennis is all about for me. I'll be ready to go."

She will need all of that, and perhaps more. Graf is playing astonishing tennis. She has not lost a match since Navratilova beat her in the Virginia Slims final in November -- a streak of 45 matches during which she has won seven tournaments, including the French Open.

Her victim in the final in Paris was Navratilova. But it wasn't easy. Navratilova led, 5-3, in the last set before Graf came back to win, 8-6. But that was on clay, Graf's surface. On grass, Navratilova should be a clear favorite.

Graf, however, has done a lot to dispel that notion these last two weeks. Although she had not played a tournament on grass since 1985, she looked comfortable from the start. She has gained confidence with each match and was absolutely overpowering in her semifinal rout of Pam Shriver.

"I am surprised I've played this well on grass," Graf said. "My goal coming here was to get to the quarters, maybe the semis. But now that I'm in the final, I don't want to stop. I'm not through with what I want to do yet."

There are people close to Graf who believe grass eventually will be her best surface because she hits the ball with so much pace, moves so well and has improved her serve so much. Her one weakness now is at the net, but even there she has come a long way in recent months.

"I looked across the court at her a couple of times and found myself not believing that someone who is only 18 could be that strong," Shriver said. "She just hits the ball so hard, it's amazing. A couple of times I read her passing shots and got my racket on the ball, but it just went right through me.

"Someday she's going to wake up, but right now it's all easy and great for her. She's playing great tennis."

That makes for a fascinating matchup. One streak must end Saturday: Navratilova's Wimbledon string or Graf's match string.

In addition, this could mark a crossroads for women's tennis. If Graf wins, she will formally move into the No. 1 spot on the computer, which Navratilova has occupied almost nonstop since the end of 1981.

Odds are she won't look back once she gets there. Navratilova does not want to give up this title or her No. 1 ranking. Even if she does win here, she will be hard-pressed to hold Graf off at the U.S. Open, in which Graf had three match points against her last year before losing.

Graf is going to be No. 1; the question is when. And, a larger question for is what kind of No. 1 will she be? Navratilova and Evert, during their 12-year domination, have been very active in the Women's International Tennis Association.

Each has been president of the organization, and each is very visible at public functions. Sunday night, when Virginia Slims threw its annual Wimbledon dinner, Evert and Navratilova each hosted a table. Graf was absent.

"Steffi's only 18; she's still getting her bearings on the tour," Shriver said. "When she first came out here, she was very standoffish, and I think people may have thought she was aloof or arrogant. But I think she's come a long way. She's a lot friendlier now than when she first came out here."

A lot of people worry about the influence of Graf's father Peter, a taskmaster who virtually controls his daughter's every move.

"It reminds me very much of Suzanne Lenglen and her father," said Ted Tinling, who has seen every woman's champion beginning with Lenglen in the 1920s. "Suzanne's father very much created Suzanne. He gave her his intensity, his will to win, his desire to be a champion. I see a lot of Suzanne in Steffi, not just in her play, but in her will to win."

There is no doubt Peter Graf has helped create a superb tennis player. But, although he says he is trying to be calmer as Steffi moves more and more into the limelight, he does not always succeed. At the start of this tournament, when a longtime Virginia Slims official congratulated Peter Graf on Steffi's victory in Paris, Peter stalked away from her saying, "You have always wanted Steffi to lose to Chris and Martina. Don't congratulate me."

Saturday, though, issues like that will be pushed to the background. Those are problems for the future. For now, this is a meeting of tennis generations. Navratilova is the past, Graf the future. Saturday, they will decide who is the present.