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So long, Martina

Like her career, Navratilova's exit 'very, very special'

Posted: Sunday September 10, 2006 1:59PM; Updated: Sunday September 10, 2006 3:31PM
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NEW YORK -- It's the way Andre Agassi would've gone out if he had had the choice: up two sets, 40-30 and serving for the match. And she didn't even have to raise her racket. An Ashe Stadium crowd of 60 percent capacity stood to their feet in applause, the significance of the moment not lost on them. Martina Navratilova responded in kind, batting her racket against her palm, then dropping into crouch before doubles partner Bob Bryan fired an 86 mph ace over her left shoulder. And just like that, it was over: 31 seasons, more than 2,000 matches and one 59th and final Grand Slam.

Not more than an hour earlier, Maria Sharapova had stood just a few feet away, a newly minted U.S. Open champion. Before thanking her family and father, Yuri, for their unyielding support, the first person she thanked was Billie Jean King, without whose activism, she says, none of this would have been possible. But Sharapova also would've been wise to thank Martina. After all, they are not that much different. Like Maria, Martina began as a tennis prodigy in Eastern Europe, and like Maria she defected westward from her native Czechoslovakia to pursue her American dream. (18-year-old Martina was fleeing the Soviets; 8-year-old Maria, their worst nuclear disaster in Chernobyl.)

Martina was a bit older when she won Wimbledon (21 to Maria's 17), but once she got running there was no stopping her. She's won the French Open twice, Australia three times and the U.S. Open four times for 18 singles titles in all -- 31 in doubles and mixed doubles, which would become her circuit of choice after her second comeback. But her legacy will always be Wimbledon: nine times a singles winner and 20 titles overall -- a record that won't be touched any time soon.

Throughout the fortnight, her goodbye had been overshadowed by Andre's. On Saturday, however, after defeating Czech pair Kveta Pescke and Martin Damm 6-2, 6-3, Martina finally got her chance to take her final bow. "When Bob was serving," she said, "all I had to do is sit down in the chair over there because it didn't matter."

She took off her wire-rimmed glasses and let the ovation wash over her last time ("Martina, we love you!" shouted one) before taking her place on the center court red carpet with Bryan.

Damm bid the evening's first heartfelt farewell, and his sendoff was damn funny. "We wish her all the best in ... the afterlife," he said. "After tennis life. Sorry. My English is not so good."

Martina raised that silver chalice to her chest, the 354th title of her career now in the books. This time there would be no comeback, she promised. She's really leaving this time. "Everybody keeps [saying] 'supposedly' her last match or whatever, "perhaps" the last match," said Martina, less than a month away from turning 50. "This was the last match. You can say 'definitely.'"

True, her body, like Agassi's, has started to betray her after more than three decades of wear and tear on the tour. But not enough to keep her from one more victory lap. And so Martina jogged, gingerly around the court for a few paces, then with Bryan for a few more. She and Bryan swatted a few autographed balls into the Ashe crowd. Then when she ran out, she went into the crowd and autographed some more: shirts, caps -- whatever she could get her hands on. Going out with a winner was sweet, she said, but in New York to boot? "Winning at home certainly is very, very special," she said.

As for Martina's next chapter, she'll keep a hand in the game, she promises, be it as a teacher, an ambassador -- whatever. She'll contribute what she can, as best she can. And while the end of her brilliant career will no doubt be mourned by many, Martina's mother isn't likely to miss it much. She "still gets so nervous," Martina says, whenever she's playing. Now, at long last, both women can finally rest easy.