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Nine's So Fine!

Martina Navratilova made Centre Court hers alone by winning a record ninth championship at Wimbledon

By Curry Kirkpatrick

Issue date: July 16, 1990

  Click for larger image David Walberg
Sports Illustrated FlashbackTalk about a cat with nine lives. If there is anything more remarkable than Martina Navratilova, that grandest of tabbies, winning her record 99th match at the All England Club and still another record ninth Wimbledon championship last week, it is the identities of the women she didn't have to beat to reach those plateaus.

Navratilova didn't play Chris Evert, NBC's own, although she did have to curtsy before her old rival, who happened to be sitting in the Royal Box one day when Navratilova strode onto the greensward. She didn't play Monica Seles, the hottest player in the game, who had arrived in London with 32 straight match victories. She didn't play Steffi Graf, the No. 1 player not only in the world but also in the gutter of Fleet Street journalism -- THIS TART IS RUINING MY GAME SAYS STEFFI, screamed The Sun. And she didn't even have to play Helen Wills Moody Roark, who couldn't be bothered to leave her Carmel, Calif., home and defend the record of eight titles she shared with Navratilova.

Ms. Roark is 84.

Picky, picky.

"Nine? I can't even comprehend one [Wimbledon title]. That's amazing ... unrealistic," said Zina Garrison, who pulled off a semiamazing stunt of her own by upsetting both Seles and Graf to reach the finals, where the newly industrious Lady Z was finally put to rest, 6-4, 6-1, zzzzzz.

The octogenarian Roark might have been heavier traffic than some of Navratilova's early-round patsies, among them Katerina Maleeva, who won two games in a match that lasted barely the time it took to figure out which of the three Maleeva sisters entered at Wimbledon she was, and Karin Kschwendt, who won another two games before admitting, "It was so strange to see Martina live [rather than on TV]. My heart was booming. I was maybe too impressed." Maybe.

Moreover, in the last two rounds Navratilova had only to go through the motions against two opponents -- Gabriela Sabatini, who was experiencing her own tragedy (a former boyfriend calling her "a fat duck," according to the ever-vigilant Sun) and Garrison -- against whom she now has a combined 41-4 career record. Even Navratilova acknowledged it would have been "more fitting" if two-time defending champion Graf, her tennis suddenly patchy, her thoughts obviously scrambled over her father's alleged dalliance with a Playboy model, had joined her in the final. But, said Navritilova, "I had prepared for Wimbledon. The event overtakes any single person. I didn't care if I scraped and scratched to get this. They don't put an asterisk next to your name saying you won but didn't play that well." In fact, Navratilova played like a dream. ...

The somewhat chauvinistic Wimbledon program called the proliferation of female teeners "the nappy and teat brigade" and it wasn't referring only to Seles, 16, and Jennifer Capriati, 14. Sashaying out of Coronado, Calif. came a dazzling Mexican-American 16-year-old named Angelica Gavaldon, wearing deep cherry lipstick, enormous hoop earrings and an alluring style out of the gospel according to Cher. "You guys really want to hear about my superstitions?" Gavaldon breathily murmured to a stunned press corps. "Well, every night my mom's friend and I kneel in the bathtub together. ..." Alas, the pro from Twin Peaks peaked in the first round, survived the second and was gone in the third.

As for Capriati, the bubbling Jen concluded her fantasy pre-ninth grade European vacation by experiencing her first play (Les Misérables), rock concert (Prince) and date against Graf, who dispatched her from the fourth ! round, 2 and 4, with that renowned forehand Capriati called "a bullet."

"Steffi's so nice," said Capriati. "And she's not an old person. She wears an MTV shirt."
  Click for larger image Navratilova basked in the crowd's well deserved adoration. David Walberg

Funny thing, though. Graf had to cut the pace and confuse Capriati. "It's strange," said Graf, barely 21. "I don't feel old. But this girl on grass ... she seems already great."

Seles, who had shocked Graf in both the German and French Opens, was considered the next hurdle for the defending champion. But as if coping with rampaging pubescents was not enough, Graf was battling a serious sinus ailment, as well as the media gone wild over allegations by West German model Nicole Meissner that Peter Graf had fathered her child, and a scandal that has linked Peter to blackmail. "Did you go shopping with Nicole Meissner?" a British reporter demanded of Steffi. Mid-fortnight, Graf flew home to Hamburg in retreat.

"Of course Steffi is hurt. How can she not be devastated?" said tour veteran Elise Burgin. "I played her in doubles, and she's not the same. This has made her more human, and when you're that, you're vulnerable."

The tabloids meanwhile were also keeping track of Seles's infernal noise- making, which was threatening to wilt all the strawberries in the British Isles. The Sun confirmed that its Grunt-o-meter recorded Seles at 82 decibels -- "between a pneumatic drill and a diesel train." This was ridiculous. A caboose, maybe. But Wimbledon was put out of its misery when in the quarters Garrison, trailing 6-7 in the third set, match point against her, slugged a brave forehand into the corner, won 10 of the next 12 points and hustled Seles off to her first defeat since March, 3-6, 6-3, 9-7, in the tournament's best match.

Garrison, 26, was a revelation. A supposed choke artist, infamous as the villain who ended Evert's career at last year's U.S. Open, she had in the past two years recovered from bulimia, married Willard Jackson, part-owner of a refuse business in her hometown of Houston, and taken readily to the stringent organization and tactical wizardry of a new coach, doubles specialist Sherwood Stewart.

All the same, Garrison had blown several matches this year, despaired and figured she was over the hill. "She was playing mind games," said Stewart. "She just needed somebody to believe in her."

Stewart fiddled with Garrison's serve, firmed up her volleys and provided detailed game plans, one of which she took into her semifinals with Graf. As Garrison kept attacking Graf with penetrating approach shots and uncannily picked off the replies with crisp volleys, Graf seemed to get anxious and frustrated.

With the match tied at a set apiece, Garrison received serve as always with that little shimmy reminiscent of Ronnie Lott challenging a receiver just before the snap. She broke serve in the third game of the third set and kept holding on. The crunch came with Garrison serving for the match at 5-4, 15- all. She fired away and approached the net one last time. Graf pulled the trigger on the forehand. Splat ... net. Garrison finished with an ace at match point. "It's just a simple loss," snapped Graf. "What else you think? A tragedy? A disaster?"

For Graf, the tragedy was that her doting father, for whom Steffi's feelings border on worship, had dishonored her by apparently causing such distress.

In the championship round a calm, relaxed Navratilova simply carved up Garrison, who had been wearing Navratilova's own signature line of clothes -- and who had been getting the outfits laundered at Navratilova's rented house in London -- until signing a six-figure deal with Reebok the day before the finals. (All told, Garrison's trip to the championship match created five new endorsement deals potentially worth more than $1 million.)

After fighting off one break point in the second game of the finals, Navratilova won 24 of 28 service points in an overwhelming display of grass- court aggression. Afterward she knelt in prayer, climbed into the guest box and kissed everyone in sight save The Duchess of Fergie. Then the old -- "I'm not a dinosaur," she said, but she is almost 34, fully 20 years older than Capriati -- and new champ paid tribute to the coaching of Billie Jean King, with whom she formed an alliance in May of last year. "She got my head straight last year when I didn't even know I was burnt out," Navratilova said. She also said, referring to her prolonged, single-minded pursuit of title No. 9, that she had looked up the word "obsession" and found it meant irrational reverence. "I prefer to consider my love for Wimbledon a rational reverence," she said. ...

Issue date: July 16, 1990

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