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Martina Navratilova's burden, it seems, is to struggle for appreciation. Last week, at the Avon championships in Madison Square Garden, before a limousine crowd that included the glittering people and every expense account from Wall Street to Madison Avenue, Navratilova played the sort of powerful tennis that has dominated the first quarter of the season, but wound up sharing billing with Chris Evert's wedding trousseau and Tracy Austin's latest shoe size. Once again Martina walked off with the prize money instead of the headlines, this time $100,000.
The championships concluded the 11-week Avon series and served to emphasize that when she is right, as she was winning 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 in the finals against Austin on Sunday, the 22-year-old Czech is devastating. Her twisting service at the beginning of the match had Austin as helpless as a butterfly pinned against cardboard.
Austin tried to keep the ball on Martina's backhand, which does not have the sting of her superb forehand, but it was a delaying tactic at best. Winning a set from her was an accomplishment; no one else did it last week, and Navratilova has lost only six others this season while taking five titles, 36 of 39 matches and $271,500 in cash.
Those statistics suggest invincibility, and the largest tennis crowd in the history of the women's game, a gathering of 13,752, turned out to see if Little Miss Placid, the 16-year-old Austin, could dent Navratilova. Except for brief moments, especially when rushed backhand approach shots scattered off her racket. Martina was in command, winning the first eight points of the match. She needed only 26 minutes to take the first set.
In effect Austin won the second set when she fired a backhand winner off a return of Navratilova's serve in the fourth game. It was the only break of a set in which Navratilova spent much of her time analyzing her ailing backhand. Instead of discarding the shot, she figured out that she was rushing it, and after giving away five break points in the second game of the third set, many off the backhand side, she settled down.
Austin's performance during the tournament suggested that her game is growing along with her body, a subject of acute interest; the press all but weighed her daily. But against Navratilova she committed a key mistake in the fourth game of the last set when she sailed a forehand wide to fall behind 3-1. From there, Navratilova went to work like someone who punches a time clock and who takes pride in her labor, "I'm tired of talking' about who's No. 1," she said afterward with a shrug. "I've won more tournaments and twice as much money, and people say it doesn't really count because Chris is getting married. In my mind I'm No. 1, and I know that if I keep playing the way I am now, nobody can take it away from me."
During most of the week, the tournament buzzed over the debacle suffered by Evert, who lost round-robin matches to Austin and Diane Fromholtz and gave the institution of marriage all kinds of sinister publicity. The back-to-back defeats were a first for Evert, indicating that she could not concentrate simultaneously on backhands and wedding invitations. She will marry British Davis Cup player John Lloyd on April 17.
Evert tired of the chatter, and after losing to Fromholtz Friday night, which eliminated her from the field, she declined to be interviewed, incurring an automatic fine from the tournament sponsors and the wrath of a New York press corps eager for gossip. Evert issued a statement accusing the press of not being "sensitive enough to my personal situation" and warned against premature talk of the weakening of reigns. Come summer—and nuptial bliss—she predicted she would be as much a threat as ever.
Little more than a year ago Evert ruled over tennis so completely that, bored, she took a four-month sabbatical. After returning she never really captured her former spirit, although she won the U.S. Open last fall. Now 24, she already has lost six matches this season—the number she might lose in a normal year—including first-time defeats by Sue Barker and Greer Stevens. Barker had failed to beat her in 15 previous matches. More important, since rejoining the tour Evert is 4-4 with Navratilova. Aside from the question of marriage, the reasons given for this state of affairs are that the rest of the women have improved, while Evert's weak points, her serve and net game, are about the same.
At any rate, the room at the top may be getting crowded, a feeling engendered by Austin during her dramatic victory over Evert on Thursday. While Tracy is a bit young to think seriously about marriage, her childhood is over. No longer is she the little girl in pigtails and pinafores. She's sweet 16, and a killer.