NEW YORK, SEPT. 13 -- Martina Navratilova always has been a stubborn woman. She has never been one to accept anything as gospel, especially when it comes to her tennis. All year, she heard again and again that she had slipped, that the torch had been passed and the new order, in the form of Steffi Graf, had taken over.
A lot of people in Navratilova's position would have accepted this as inevitable. But Navratilova, who will be 31 in October, is not ready to abdicate her throne, even though Graf is more than ready to take over.
"People say I've had a bad year," she said. "Let me put it this way. I'll take a year like this every year. If you are looking at the year from the standpoint of quantity, Steffi's certainly had that, with some quality, too. But if you look at it for quality, well, I won the U.S. Open and Wimbledon."
She won the Open about as convincingly as possible, never dropping a set and beating Graf soundly, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, in the final. By doing so, she became the first person in history to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year on four occasions.
Those are the two biggest tournaments of any year. Graf, understandably, sticks by the computer. "The computer says I'm still number one," she said. "I'm not going to say anything against that." It should be pointed out that Graf said the same thing when Navratilova was No. 1 on the computer.
Navratilova reached all four Grand Slam finals, winning two. Graf reached three finals, winning one. If Graf were to beat Navratilova in the Virginia Slims final in November, a best-of-five-sets match, then there could be considerable debate over who is No. 1.
This tournament made Navratilova No. 1 again. But it did more than that. It may have marked the beginning of the end for Chris Evert and the arrival of Lori McNeil.
McNeil, 23, beat her longtime friend and doubles partner, Zina Garrison, in the fourth round. Ever so slowly, McNeil has been creeping up on Garrison, who has been an established top 10 player for several years. Now, McNeil will join her in the top 10. Both are from Houston, both are young and both are black. Although the USTA chose to place their match on an outside court, McNeil made her presence felt before the tournament was over.
Not only did she beat Evert in the quarterfinals, she pushed Graf to the limit in the semifinals. In her first singles match on the stadium court, she had the crowd screaming. McNeil is bigger than Garrison and more fluid in her shotmaking. It may be that she is the one who cracks the top five and becomes the first serious black female contender for a Grand Slam title since the heyday of Althea Gibson in the 1950s.
The play of McNeil, along with the improved play this summer of Pam Shriver, only 25, leaves open hope that the post-Evert-Navratilova era will not be strictly European/South American. The top young players in the world right now are Graf (West Germany), Hana Mandlikova (Czechoslovakia), Helena Sukova (Czechoslovakia), Gabriela Sabatini (Argentina) and Natalia Zvereva (Soviet Union).
Shriver has worked harder on her singles this year than in the past and has had her best year since first bursting on the scene nine years ago as a 16-year-old finalist here. She made the semifinals at Wimbledon; beat Evert for the first time this summer and lost a tough quarterfinal to Graf at the Open.
"I know now what hard work can do," she said. "I really feel I'm entering a period now where I can make a lot of progress in singles. I just have to keep pushing myself."
If she wants an example of what hard work can do, Shriver needs only look at her friend and doubles partner, Navratilova. Saturday's victory was her 17th Grand Slam title, leaving her one behind Evert. For Evert, 32, this will be the first year since 1973 that she failed to win a Grand Slam, or, for that matter, reach a Grand Slam final. The last time she won a final was the 1986 French Open.
For Evert, the day when she cannot win Grand Slams apparently has come, at long last. It will come some day for Navratilova, too. But, if she has anything to say about it, not anytime soon. That she still has plenty to say about it was never more evident than Saturday.