LONDON, JULY 4 -- She says each one is more special than the last. Today, there was no doubting that. Today, Martina Navratilova used all her guile, all her skills and all her courage. And when she was through, when she threw her arms into the air and screeched for joy, she had made tennis history.

In a taut, tense match that could have turned the other way at any moment, Navratilova beat Steffi Graf, 7-5, 6-3, to win a record sixth straight Wimbledon singles championship and the eighth Wimbledon singles title of her remarkable career.

The importance of the victory to Navratilova cannot be understated. She wanted to break the record of five straight singles championships that she shared with Suzanne Lenglen, H. Laurie Doherty and Bjorn Borg. She wanted to equal the record eight singles wins by Helen Wills Moody.

Almost as important, Navratilova wanted to send a message to Graf: Not yet. The 18-year-old West German came into the match with a 45-match winning streak this year, including a victory over Navratilova in the French Open final. A Graf victory, here on the court Navratilova holds sacred, would have made her No. 1 in the world, on the computer and in everyone's mind.

But Navratilova was not ready to surrender anything. She is 30 and she had not won a tournament this year. But she carried with her to Centre Court today a 40-match winning streak at Wimbledon, years and years of experience and her fierce pride. Using every ounce of energy those three things provided her, she walked off with the trophy she cherishes most.

"I had beat myself in matches a couple of times but that just was not going to happen here," Navratilova said. "There was no doubt in my mind that if somebody was going to beat me it would be with better shots and better tennis, not because I got upset, got nervous or let down mentally. I had tunnel vision and didn't let anything get to me. I played a great match. I had to."

The great irony was that Navratilova won as much, if not more, with her head as with her body. Superb athlete that she is, she always has been talked of as the bigger, stronger player. Today, it was Graf who hit the ball harder. But it was Navratilova who always knew exactly what she wanted to do, where she wanted to put the ball and why.

In short, the match was brains versus brawn and Navratilova was the brains.

"I guess that may be as good a match as I've ever played tactically," Navratilova said. "I only had one opportunity in the second set and I made the most of it. In the first, I had some more but she just boomed some serves in on break point. After a while I said, 'Who am I playing here, Pat Cash?' "

Graf will learn. She will learn to adjust when she is consistently jammed to her backhand side by a spin serve. She will learn to chip instead of just slam. She will learn to pick her spots to come in. But today, with all the brilliant shots in her arsenal, Graf was outsmarted by a wiser, more experienced player.

"I just couldn't return today," Graf said. "Whenever I had a chance, she sliced a serve to my backhand and I had trouble with that. She served great and didn't miss any volleys. If I had to lose, losing to the No. 1 player in the world at the Wimbledon final is not so bad."

And, as the Duchess of Kent told Graf during the awards ceremony, there will be many years for her. This, though, was Navratilova's day. Wimbledon's Centre Court is like no place else. The very tightness of the place, the grass, the seats, the roof and the presence of royalty, makes it unique. Graf, who at times seems immune to nerves or pressure, admitted she felt it today walking onto the court.

"There is nothing else like it," she said. "It is different than all the other places. I never felt like that before."

Navratilova had, having been through this so many times she almost considers it a birthright. There also was something intangible in the air today, a sense that the tennis gods didn't believe it was Graf's time yet. Almost every net-cord, including a couple of crucial ones, went against her.

In the first set, Navratilova had three net-cord winners, a mis-hit that landed on the base line and a bad-hop serve that went under Graf's racket the very first time she faced 15-30.

"I thought, 'The gods are with me today,' " Navratilova said. "That helped me psychologically and it probably frustrated her. A couple of times I went, 'Thanks, Zeus,' or whoever that is up there."

It wasn't just Zeus, though. From the start, Navratilova put herself in front and stayed there. She never let Graf get any kind of winning feeling. She held her serve to start the match and never once lost it. But that doesn't mean it was easy.

Graf was almost as strong as Navratilova in her service games for most of the first set. At 1-2, she saved a break point by reaching a drop shot and punching a backhand cross court for a winner.

They stayed on serve routinely until 5-4, Navratilova. Then, suddenly, Navratilova was all over Graf. On the net like a cat, she put her down quickly at 0-40. Three set points. Graf took a deep breath and, as Navratilova described it, "went boom-boom-boom." An unhittable serve followed by an ace, followed by a gorgeous running forehand down the line.

"Too good," was all Navratilova could say.

Graf saved the game two deuces later in spite of yet another Navratilova net-cord. It was 5-all and the crowd was now into the match. There was a sense that Navratilova was walking on eggs. Three set points gone and if Graf won the set, the momentum would very much be with her.

Navratilova did not get distracted, though. At times, she says, her mind wanders during matches. Today, she was unwavering. She held serve quickly to lead, 6-5, and had Graf in trouble again at 15-40 with a crackling forehand return that set up an easy backhand volley.

But Graf would not crack, even in the crucible of a Wimbledon final. Two more big serves got her to deuce. Five set points wasted. "She was playing those points like a serve-and-volleyer," Navratilova said. "I really needed to break through on just one of those."

Chance six came moments later. This time, Navratilova got a second serve. She hit a forehand cross court and charged. Zap -- Graf nailed a forehand winner. Six set points gone.

Navratilova hung in. She did not want the set decided in a tie breaker. She hit a short forehand down the line and Graf, racing over, missed a backhand wide. Set point seven. Another big serve, but Navratilova hit a lunge return. Graf came in and punched a forehand but Navratilova reached it and smacked a backhand down the line.

Finally, she had the set. She pumped her fist. Halfway there.

"I was still into the match, I still had a good chance," Graf said. "I was still serving well."

But Navratilova was resolute. Graf had her only break point of the match in the opening game of the second set. A quick break and perhaps the match would turn. But Navratilova served one more time to the backhand and one more time, Graf netted it.

Graf never came that close to breaking again. At 3-3, 15-30, Graf nailed a backhand down the line. It looked like a winner. Navratilova lunged, got her racket on the ball and it hit the tape and crawled over the net.

"I felt terrible about the net-cords, but especially that one," Graf said. "The ball just made it over that stupid net."

Both players had the same thought at that moment: this was the way it was meant to be. Graf stared at the ground, Navratilova at the heavens, giving thanks. "Right then I said this is meant to be, it's destiny," Navratilova said. "I said to myself, 'You're getting all the breaks you haven't been getting.' But I still needed a break."

She got it at 4-3. At 30-all, Graf made a rare forehand error, smacking one wide. Navratilova was one point away, one big point. Graf missed her first serve. Second serve. In came Navratilova. Graf chased the volley, whacked a forehand and heard it hit the net tape. Navratilova had the break. It was 5-3.

Time to serve for history.

"All I thought about was getting my first serve in. I just kept my mind totally focused on that. I didn't want to wander, think about anything else at that moment. I got two serves in, 30-0. I missed my first serve and for a second I thought, 'Paris,' {where she double-faulted twice serving for the match}. But I got rid of that quickly. She hit a backhand return. Okay, too good. Now I was thinking where should I serve? She was starting to get a feel for the backhand, but I said let's make her hit it again."

She did twice, Graf missed the first, nailed the second -- saving one match point. But it was 40-30 and there was a second match point. "I decided this was the time to go down the middle to the forehand because I knew she wouldn't expect it," Navratilova said. "I was right."

Graf's return hit the tape, almost crawled over and died. Navratilova was ecstatic, turning to the friends box where her entourage -- coaches Randy Crawford and Renee Richards, trainer Joe Breedlove and good friend Judy Nelson -- sat, wagging an index finger. "That meant, No. 1, I finally won a tournament," Navratilova said. "If I have to lose every other one and win this one, that's just fine with me."

The duke and duchess gave her the Challenge Cup for the eighth time and she held it up, perhaps just a little higher than ever before, the sun glancing off the polished silver. Finally, it was time to leave. "How many more do you want?" Graf asked with a smile as they gathered their flowers to walk off.

"Nine is my lucky number," Navratilova answered.

And finally, a last scene to touch everyone. As the players left, Navratilova looked into the stands, where Chris Evert sat in the fourth row. Their eyes met and Evert thrust her fist into the air. Navratilova looked back at her best rival and best friend and shook her fist back.

"One for the old guard," Navratilova said later.

And one more for an extraodinary champion.