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The Last Hurrah
S.L. Price
July 11, 1994
Pete Sampras and Conchita Martinez were the winners at Wimbledon, but Martina Navratilova stole the show
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July 11, 1994

The Last Hurrah

Pete Sampras and Conchita Martinez were the winners at Wimbledon, but Martina Navratilova stole the show

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The tennis was less a concern. Martínez, a Wimbledon semifinalist in '93, played as though she were born to grass. Growing up in Monzón, Spain, she practiced against a wall she named Martina. By the end of Saturday she had beaten the real one. "I was great the whole match," Martínez said—which is as good a way as any to announce that tennis has a new star.

Just in time, too. Navratilova's first march to a Grand Slam singles final since 1991 made for irresistible drama, but it also highlighted how shallow the women's game is beyond No. 1-ranked Steffi Graf. With Graf having been knocked out in the first round (SI, July 4), and with Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati at least temporarily out of the game, the women's draw opened up wider than the Chunnel. Navratilova wasn't seriously challenged until Gigi Fernandez gimped onto the court for their semifinal match. Ranked 99th and hampered by hamstring and quadriceps injuries—"I have no legs," she said—the 30-year-old Fernandez came to Wimbledon mulling retirement and pulling for her Aspen neighbor, Martina. In other words, not the stiffest competition Navratilova has ever faced.

"I don't really care," said Navratilova after struggling to a 6-4, 7-6 win. "I'm in the finals." By fortnight's end, that was all that mattered. It seemed only right that the greatest champion Wimbledon has ever known have a final run on the lawn. "This is what I wanted: to go out in style," said Navratilova.

With Princess Diana, singer k.d. lang and South African deputy president F.W. de Klerk all attending the women's final, she did. But her bond with Wimbledon goes deeper than royalty. "This court," Chris Evert once said, "is her court."

No other surface suits Navratilova's game as well as grass, and as the site of her first Grand Slam singles title, in 1978, no other tennis tournament ever evoked as pure an emotion. Once during the first week, Navratilova came to Centre Court after everyone had gone, "at night, with just the guard dogs." Just to see the place, alone, like some giddy, awed teen. Who better to remind us why this is the most revered place in tennis?

"I loved Wimbledon from the first time I knew about it," she said. "It's like a relationship where you love that person more and more. It gets deeper. And, you know, it's been reciprocated. I feel this place in my bones. I feel all those champions, dead and alive, when I'm out there. There's no place like it."

Yet before Navratilova's opening match, against Great Britain's Claire Taylor, there was no hint that this place could revive her game. After bombing out of the '94 French Open in the first round—and smashing a racket in disgust—she looked slow and nerveless in a quarterfinal loss to 39th-ranked Meredith McGrath at Eastbourne, a Wimbledon tune-up. "Everything is much slower," said Jana Novotna, last year's Wimbledon finalist, of Navratilova after that. "Her will is there, but the body just can't do it anymore."

However, Navratilova's coaches, Craig Kardon and Billie Jean King, kept telling her that once she got to Wimbledon, where she had won 18 titles overall, she would feel the old magic. They were right. The moment she walked onto Centre Court to face Taylor, the sun broke through for the first time all day. Walking off, she told Taylor, "Turn around. Enjoy it. This doesn't happen very often."

But it did. Navratilova rolled to another five wins and didn't lose a set until her first against Novotna. For the remainder of that match she played her best tennis of the tournament, and the result was a near blanking in the last two sets, 6-0, 6-1. "I wouldn't have predicted that," Navratilova said.

Then again, this wasn't a time to be predicting anything. Martínez began the tournament as a 33-to-1 shot. At the start of the fortnight, who would have bet on a woman who insisted she had been inspired by the king of Spain, even if two of his other subjects, Sergi Bruguera and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, had just won the French Open? Who would have imagined that after two weeks, longtime Wimbledon darling Boris Becker would exit with a damaged reputation?

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