In 29 years of professional tennis, Martina Navratilova has never bowed to convention -- brandishing muscles when litheness was considered ideal, venting the full range of emotion when restraint was admired, and speaking out when keeping quiet was rewarded.
So it was no surprise that she entered the French Open at 47, a full decade after playing her last Grand Slam singles match, with an agenda all her own -- one that had nothing to do with winning.
"I thought if I can get out here and hold my own on the singles court, then it will help me on the doubles court," Navratilova said.
The exercise didn't last long, as Gisela Dulko, a 19-year-old Argentine, beat her idol, 6-1, 6-3, Tuesday in an efficient 61 minutes.
Navratilova's return to singles, coming 20 years after she last won at Roland Garros, elicited admiration from several on the women's tour -- Venus and Serena Williams in particular. But it was questioned by the tournament's No. 3 seed, Amelie Mauresmo of France, who told journalists that she felt Navratilova's presence, made possible by a wild-card entry, was "penalizing young French women players" who presumably would have taken her slot in the 128-player draw.
"Did I diminish the tournament by playing out there today?" Navratilova mused after her defeat. "I don't think so. If that's how you see it, that's how you see it."
Navratilova moved well around the court, though not as quickly. She hit 55 percent of her first serves and committed fewer unforced errors (17) than Dulko (19). And she managed to rattle Dulko by attacking the net more often than the clay-court specialist was accustomed to, earning four points on crisp, well-placed volleys.
"I'm not used to playing against girls who go to the net a lot," said Dulko, ranked 64th in the world. "She played great. I was very surprised by the way she ran after the ball. She moved very well. She was there, in the game, and she wanted to win each shot."
Indeed, Navratilova flashed her wiles on the court more than once. But the vexing thing about tennis is that scoring points doesn't necessarily translate to winning. If the points aren't strung together at the right time, they amount to a lot of work for nothing.
"I couldn't convert game points," Navratilova said. "That was the difference in the match. She played very well, mind you. But I didn't play the big points well."
It wasn't for lack of support.
At times it was as if there were a third competitor at Court 1 for the Navratilova-Dulko match. That third "presence" consisted of tennis fans of a certain age, for whom Navratilova represented the defiance of time and the refusal to surrender a dream.
"Come on, Martina! Come on!" they shouted, urging her on after she had fallen behind 0-30 in the first game.
From players' perspectives, Court 1 is considered the third-most prestigious venue at Roland Garros, seating 3,757 as opposed to the 15,109 of the Philippe Chatrier center court. But it's without peer from a fan's perspective. The venue is shaped like a miniature Roman coliseum, with the grandstands rising like the sides of a bowl. The clay court sits like a patch of red velvet below, so close it seems you could reach out and touch it.
And with their voices, the fans reached out to Navratilova at every critical juncture. One man was particularly insistent, yelling "She's getting tired! She's getting tired!" every time Dulko netted a forehand or erred on a backhand.
"I'm like, 'Yeah, right!' " Navratilova recalled thinking at the time. "It was very sweet. The crowd was great. I just wanted to stay out there a bit longer to give them something to cheer about. I had some moments of brilliance, but they were few and far between."
Dulko swept through the first set in 25 minutes, twice breaking Navratilova's serve. The young Argentine, whose mother is Navratilova's age, hit the ball with tremendous pace and seemed happy to smack away all afternoon. On many of their exchanges, Navratilova did well simply to keep the ball in play by floating it back.
The two-time French Open champion rallied in the second set, breaking Dulko to take a 3-2 lead. Just as quickly, she was broken back. Afterward she chided herself for not taking longer to plot strategy between points. She blamed the failure on her lack of match play and vowed to do better in matches to come.
Navratilova will continue in the tournament's doubles competition, paired with Lisa Raymond. She has requested a wild-card entry into next month's grass court tune-up at Eastbourne but stopped well short of committing herself to singles play at Wimbledon, where she is tied with Billie Jean King for all-time titles (20).
"I need to win a few matches at Eastbourne before I would put myself on the line at Wimbledon," she said.
Regardless of the outcome there or anywhere else, she said, this will be her last year of professional tennis. "Not because I couldn't do it for a few more years," she added, defiant to the end, "but this is enough."