When the organizers decided to make Sunday's Virginia Slims Championships the first three-out-of-five set final in women's tennis in 82 years, the primary reason was to keep Martina Navratilova on the court for more than the customary 45 minutes it takes her to win a match. Well, Navratilova needed 112 minutes on the Sporteze at Madison Square Garden to beat Chris Evert Lloyd 6-3, 7-5, 6-1, but the longer format simply gave her more opportunities to utilize her superior blend of power, speed and raw athleticism. "I'd love to play the Grand Slam events three-out-of-five," said Navratilova afterward, "because it would take that much more for someone to beat me. It would eliminate more of that chance of an upset."
Navratilova can thank a rejuvenated Evert Lloyd for providing the kind of challenge that forced her to raise her game to breathtaking heights. During one inspired stretch in the second set, maybe the best Navratilova and Evert Lloyd have played in their 57 matches, Navratilova saved five break points with acrobatic play at the net and blistering serves. In the runaway third set she even hit a winner from the baseline off an Evert Lloyd overhead. "She does a lot of things like that in practice, which very few people get to see," says her coach, Mike Estep, a former tour player. "I enjoy her being able to display to the world how well she can play."
Perhaps the most important thing Navratilova displayed was the quality she has often lacked: mental toughness. Her performance on the critical points that decided the second set so discouraged Evert Lloyd that she went on a mental walkabout, losing 10 of the last 12 games. "I think this should tell a lot of people whether I'm mentally tough or not," said Navratilova.
It should also tell a lot of people that the wide gap between Navratilova and the rest of women's tennis is widening. Despite the promotional hoopla over the three-out-of-five final and the women's record $125,000 first prize, the central issue at the Garden was an aging refrain: What, if anything, can Evert Lloyd, who can beat everybody else, do to defeat Navratilova? Navratilova now has won 12 of their last 13 meetings and nine in a row, the only defeat coming at the 1982 Australian Open. In that span, Evert Lloyd has won just five sets. But after announcing her separation from her husband, John, in January, Evert Lloyd began the year with a new midsize graphite racket—it gives her more pace than her conventional-size wood frame did—and an encouraging performance at the U.S. Indoors in New Jersey two weeks ago. In that tournament she took Navratilova to a second-set tiebreaker and gave followers of the women's game hope of a new challenge to the throne. "Chris played with defiance again," said tennis historian Ted Tinling. "Last year there was a resigned quality to her play. Finally, she has nothing to defend, and that should help her mentally."
Which is where Evert Lloyd is willing to stake a last stand against Navratilova. Pursing her lips when asked early last week if she believes she's the tougher player mentally, Evert Lloyd gave a quick nod and said tersely, "Yeah. Yeah I do." And does she still consider Navratilova, uh, mentally vulnerable? "Yeah I do," she said, no apology in her voice. "Martina's strength is when she rolls right over you for three or four games and then gets confident. But if you can stay with her from the beginning, things tend to get interesting."
Evert Lloyd, of course, had to eat those words on Sunday. "Right now, Martina is so confident that she's playing the big points the best of everyone," she said. "She came up with a higher standard of tennis when her back was up against the wall." Indeed, with Navratilova apparently having rid herself of the old choke bugaboo, the only place Evert Lloyd would seem to have a realistic chance of winning is on clay. She's 8-0 against Navratilova on that surface, but they haven't met on clay since '81.
As for Navratilova's physical assets, believe it or not, they continue to improve. Under the tutelage of Estep, who replaced Renee Richards after Navratilova lost to Kathy Horvath at the French Open last May, she has developed a formidable topspin backhand, improved her serve and foot speed, and become at once more aggressive and more consistent. "I tell her to play the way I would play," says Estep, who puts Navratilova through grueling four-hour workouts when she's not playing a tournament.
Adds Navratilova, "The fun is improving every day. Mike has made me play the kind of tennis I never knew I could play. I'm not making many errors these days. Chris is the one who has to hit the great shots and the winners."
Billie Jean King, for one, believes there is little Evert Lloyd can do other than hope that Navratilova plays poorly. "Martina is head and shoulders above everybody," says King. "A baseliner can't beat her anymore. Chris is going to have to change her style, and, at 29, it's kind of late for her to do that."
Evert Lloyd's practices at the Garden were stern, a posture she carried off court, too. She refused to answer questions about her separation or lingering rumors that she has been seeing Adam Faith, a 42-year-old British actor and former rock star. For the most part, she hung around with a triumvirate of friends: Kathy Smith, the queen of video aerobics; Smith's boyfriend and manager, Ron Samuels, who is a film producer and the former husband of Lynda (Wonder Woman) Carter; and Melony Green, who described herself simply as "a friend from L.A." Sensitive to any appearance that she's copying Team Navratilova, Evert Lloyd was quick to point out that none of her friends "are on a payroll or anything." Samuels, who said, "Chris is like my sister," spoke for the group when he said, "I find it offensive to be thought of as an entourage."