NEW YORK -- Regardless what numbers the computer spews out, and regardless how steadfastly Steffi Graf may choose to believe them, Martina Navratilova and not Graf is the No. 1 player in women's tennis. Navratilova has won just two tournaments all year, but they are the two most important tournaments -- Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. And in each case the woman she beat was Graf.
"It depends," Navratilova said, referring to the rankings, "if you go for quality or quantity." Graf has the quantity. She has lost only twice all year in 64 matches. But those losses were both to Navratilova, and both in straight sets, the second sets (6-3 at Wimbledon and 6-1 at the Open) surgical procedures. Graf may have won the popular vote, but Navratilova has the electoral college majority in her pocket. "I like my year," Navratilova said, even though her record (39-7) is her worst since 1977, even though her seven losses in nine months are already half as many as she had in the four years between 1982 and 1986. "I'd be thrilled to have this bad a year again next year," she said, delightedly.
In her way Navratilova has become the Ms. October of tennis -- playing her best in the crucial contests, raising the level of her game with the whole world watching. She prepared idiosyncratically for Wimbledon, losing in six straight tournaments, twice to Graf, her heiress apparent. Then, living dangerously, she publicly declared that she would make Wimbledon her Alamo, that victory there was more important to her than anything else she'd done in her career, that it was critical to the validation of her greatness. She made her stand on the London grass, turning back the Walloper Wunderkind, and the tides of time as well.
Navratilova played just one tournament after Wimbledon, and was embarrassed by Chris Evert, devastated in a semi, 6-2, 6-1. Yet here she was, her customary top seeding rightfully appropriated by Graf, gliding through the draw like she had ice skates on. She didn't lose a set. Seven opponents beat her a total of 32 games. She had a new hair cut -- a spiky Ziggy Stardust-doo she said would be favored back in Czechoslovakia by "pranksters, the kind of people who steal chickens and tie their legs together" -- and the old fire. Once more Graf threw the gauntlet at her. Once more she picked it up, and hurled it back. Harder.
This is a very special thing Navratilova has accomplished -- winning Wimbledon and the Open in a year that was supposed to mark the beginning of her end. She showed the world the stuff that champions are made of.
Surely, Graf will usurp her crown someday, but as they say on the Fort Worth football fields Navratilova has come to love so well, she'd better bring her lunch.
Graf-Navratilova was the third and last match of what has come to be known as Super Saturday at the U.S. Open -- a day only slightly shorter than a Kris Kristofferson movie -- in which the men's semis and women's final are played. The Open is the only Grand Slam tournament that demands its contestants play their semis and finals on consecutive days, and as a result the Saturday logjam is the most sought-after ticket of the tournament.
Players generally resent the back-to-back scheduling and go to great length to complain that it's unfair. They accuse television of greedily loading up its weekend programming at their expense. (The fact that TV money enables them to drive their fancy cars and fly first class all over the world is apparently of no concern to the players. "Players don't play this tournament for money," said Mats Wilander, the same I-play-for-the-love-of-the-game Mats Wilander who recently said he wouldn't play in the Olympics unless they allowed him to wear endorsement patches on his sleeve.)
Anyway, Saturday was overflowing with fairness issues, mostly stemming from the decision to alter the usual order of play and make sure to complete the men's matches because of the gloomy forecast of rain. The women, who usually play the second match, were upset having to play at night. Wilander and Stefan Edberg, those charismatic Swedes, were so angered at having to start their match at 10 a.m. that they staged a 15-minute mini-protest and didn't go onto the court until 10:15. Wilander reportedly locked himself in a bathroom. (When the Swedes practice civil disobedience, it is very civil.)
The Swedes did have justice on their side. The only reason to put them on early -- when Edberg had played a five-set doubles match on Friday, and the other semifinalists, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl, hadn't stepped on a court since Wednesday -- was to anticipate the American television public's preference for watching Jimbo rather than the Swedes.
In case you hadn't noticed, this is professional tennis; we're dialing for dollars here. Which do you think is an easier sell -- the same play with Marlon Brando or without him? TV isn't in the fairness business, it's in the star business. And let's be reasonable, in the American championship, doesn't the lone remaining American figure to move more microwave ovens and trade more stocks and bonds than two Swedes and a Czech expatriate? Thank you, PaineWebber.
So all across America they got Jimbo at a reasonable hour, and saw Lendl, as usual, carve him down to the bone. (That's 14 straight now, dating back to 1984.) Jimbo, who regularly vows to leave his guts on the court in pursuit of victory, declined to be specific on the findings of another self-autopsy. But the question is raised as to who is liable if someone playing the match after Connors' slips on Jimbo's guts and breaks an ankle?