NEW YORK, SEPT. 12 -- As she sat in the locker room this afternoon waiting for what seemed like an eternity to play the U.S. Open final, Martina Navratilova fiddled with a crossword puzzle. Her mind, as always happens before a Grand Slam final, was racing.

"You go from knowing you can't lose to, 'Oh my God, how can I win, what will I do?' " she said. "Your mind goes blank, then it all comes clear." The crossword wasn't going well, Navratilova said, until she came across a four-letter word for a river in Germany. "Elbe," she wrote and smiled. That was the final omen. She knew.

Two hours later, Navratilova, the tournament's second seed, stood holding the Open trophy for the fourth time, having methodically worn down Steffi Graf -- from Breuhl, West Germany -- 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, leaving no doubt that, computers aside, she is still the No. 1 women's tennis player in the world.

"Last night, I was so sure I was going to win that I started to worry about being overconfident," she said. "I knew Steffi had an attackable weakness and I knew I was playing very well. I really didn't think I had to play a great match to win. I just had to play a correct match. I just didn't see myself making enough errors to lose."

If one looks at Navratilova's career record -- this was her 17th Grand Slam singles title and the fourth time she has won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year -- that kind of confidence is understandable. But if one looks at Graf's 62-1 match record in 1987 coming into the match, it is remarkable.

"She just played a very good match," Graf said. "I wasn't moving as well as I needed to move. But she was playing very well."

It must be said that Graf was not completely healthy. She was fighting a cold and apparently a touch of the flu, enough so that she defaulted her doubles semifinal tonight. But that sort of thing is part of the deal.

"We've all gone through playing hurt or sick," Navratilova said. "I'm glad I was healthy. To be honest, though, I had to worry about myself, not her."

Navratilova's major concern today was the U.S. Tennis Association's practice of scheduling the women's final after a men's semifinal. Today, both men's semifinals were played before the women's match because of the threatening weather.

"It's absolutely ridiculous to play a Grand Slam final and not know what time you're going to play," Navratilova said. "I didn't even know if we'd get to play. Then as soon as we got on the court {shortly after 6 p.m.}, it started to drizzle while we were warming up. I didn't want that. I wanted to get it done."

There was little doubt about that. One year ago, when Graf was 17 and Navratilova was six weeks shy of 30, the two of them staged a memorable semifinal here. Navratilova, three match points down in the last-set tie breaker, escaped with an extraordinary victory.

Now, a year later, Graf had grown bigger, stronger and more confident. She had beaten Navratilova in the French final and lost a scintillating Wimbledon final. This was the rubber match, on a neutral (hard) court.

And, in spite of Graf's record and her No. 1 ranking, Navratilova brimmed with confidence. "Chris {Evert} said she was beatable after Los Angeles, Pam {Shriver} said she was beatable after the quarters and I saw against Lori {McNeil} -- she was beatable," Navratilova said. "I didn't have any doubts."

For one set, it was a contest. Graf got the first break, bolting out of the box to win the first two games of the match. Navratilova is too experienced to get shaken by a quick start. She took a deep breath and broke Graf back at love. From there, each held serve easily until the tie breaker.

If there was going to be a crisis for Navratilova, this was it. In five previous Open finals, she had lost twice. The first time was in 1981 when Tracy Austin won the second and third sets, both by 7-6. The second time was 1985 when Hana Mandlikova won the first and third sets, 7-6.

The thought crossed her mind. "Before the first point I said to myself, 'Okay, let's see if you can win a tie breaker in a final.' Then I remembered I had beaten her in that tie breaker last year. It wasn't a final, but it was a pretty important tie breaker."

She won this one by serving superbly, not missing a first serve and keeping Graf off-balance. At 3-all, Graf just missed a backhand pass after Navratilova had come in behind her first serve. Up 4-3, Navratilova charged Graf's second serve and watched another backhand fly long. That was the key point. Graf held her serve for 5-4, but Navratilova served it out from there, first going to the backhand, then jamming Graf's forehand.

She was pumping her fist by then, knowing she had a very big lead, on the scoreboard and in Graf's head. "I could sense her drop a little after that," Navratilova said. "It probably looked like a long way to come back for her. I wasn't playing that well, but I wasn't making very many mistakes."

Time and again, she served to Graf's backhand. Then, just when Graf began playing for the backhand, she would surprise her by going to the forehand. Graf had more power, but Navratilova never let her tee the ball up to use that power.

"My timing was a little bit off today," Graf said. "I didn't feel quite right. After the first set, I just couldn't move as well as I wanted to."

Once Navratilova had the tie breaker, the match was over quickly. Navratilova broke in the second game of the set, reaching break point with a superb, rolling forehand pass, then getting the break when Graf ended one of the few base line rallies of the match by netting a backhand. Graf didn't quit. She had two break points in the next game and forced five deuces. But Navratilova hung on, came up with two more service winners and it was 3-0.

Navratilova smelled the finish. She kept exhorting herself quietly: "Come on now, yeah, let's get 'em," and, finally, 76 minutes into the match, she had her third match point.

One more twisting second serve, one more smacked forehand and Graf, lunging, sent a forehand past the base line. Navratilova watched it sail out, then leaped in the air, joyful, vindicated, thrilled.

"I feel all those things," she said. "I didn't need to prove myself, but there's nothing worse than people saying you're washed up when you know you're not."

She is anything but washed up. Greatness will come for Graf, there is no question about that. But years from now, when she measures herself as a player, she can look back and say she learned -- the hard way -- from a woman whose genius for the game was unsurpassed.

Tonight, she emphatically proved that one more time. But then, she knew it all along.