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Like Kareem, Reggie, Billie Jean, O.J., Arnie and Pelé, Martina has outlived the need for a surname, which is just as well, because few athletes have suffered such indignities of mispronunciation as she. In spite of almost a decade of practice, tennis umpires on both sides of the Atlantic still have trouble wrapping their tongues around...Natri-lova...Natra-vi-lova...Navra-ti-lo-va. Ahh, now you've got it.
But Martina's singularity only begins with her name. She doesn't look like anybody else. Her hooded and slightly melancholy hazel eyes, the flat planes of her face, her straight, baby-fine hair and the extraordinary definition of the muscles of her arms and legs fit no known mold. She doesn't behave like anyone else. At one time or another she overindulged, with the joyous abandon of the newly rich, in almost everything a capitalist society has to offer, and her not-so-private life has now and then been the talk if not the toast of several continents. She didn't want her life off the court scrutinized, but it happened.
And, when Martina is at her best, she doesn't play like anyone else. She is sublimely gifted in strength, athleticism and talent for tennis. The top of her game beats the top of everybody else's. But. She has the temperament of an operatic diva of the old school. Not since Suzanne Lenglen has such an extravagant personality occupied the center court of women's tennis. Martina is at once warm, generous, passionate, impulsive, paranoid, arrogant, sentimental and naive. At times her mercurial nature inspires her play; at others it gets in the way. Ted Tinling, the majordomo of the women's game, once told World Tennis, "She is the greatest serve-and-volleyer women's tennis has ever seen. She has fantastic concept, unbelievable imagination." But. "She has that dramatic Slav temperament that requires the stimulus of a crisis.... She's always going to have the storm; she's always going to underassess her opponent and underassess her own ability to handle it when the storm hits. I've always said she goes from arrogance to panic with nothing in between."
The most recent instance of Martina's special brand of panic occurred in the final of the Avon Championships at Madison Square Garden in March. Having won all five of the Avon tournaments she had entered in 1982, and with a 27-match winning streak going, she played a breathtaking first set against West Germany's Sylvia Hanika at the Garden. Martina won the set 6-1, and at the press table during the changeover, memories were ransacked for instances of comparable perfection. The next day The New York Times said she had played "an almost flawless 23-minute first set that resembled John McEnroe attacking Bjorn Borg's baseline topspin game."
In the opening game of the second set, Martina broke Hanika's serve again, and at 3-1 it looked as though the match might be one of the shortest in tennis history. Then Hanika, on the brink of losing her serve again, hit a lucky let-cord volley at deuce and a backhand passing shot down the line for the game, and the tenor of the match changed. As Martina's confidence began to wither, Hanika's grew. She started hitting out with assurance and won the next four games and the set. In the third set, while serving at 4-4, Martina hit an easy forehand volley into the bottom of the net at 0-15, struck a forehand approach nearly into the seats at 15-30 and netted a routine forehand cross-court passing shot at 30-40. Hanika served out the match at love.
Immediately a chorus of a thousand voices, most of them sportswriters', revived that familiar refrain: Martina Loses the Big Ones. They recalled the final of the Toyota Championships in December, when she had won eight straight games to take a 6-2, 2-0 lead and then lost the match 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 and probably the No. 1 ranking for 1981 as well. They remembered last year's U.S. Open title match against Austin, in which Martina had won the first set 6-1 and then, at 4-4 in the second, at break point, dumped a shoulder-high forehand volley into the net and eventually lost 1-6, 7-6, 7-6. Of course, if Martina had beaten Hanika that day in New York, the same chorus would have broken into its other favorite: Martina Always Wins Indoors. The chorus always has the last word.
Two weeks after the shocker at the Garden, Martina came back and won the Family Circle Cup at Hilton Head on clay, a surface that is said to be inimical to her aggressive style of play. Martina was seeded to meet Chris Evert Lloyd, the greatest clay-court player of them all, in the finals, but a patient Andrea Jaeger defeated Evert Lloyd in the semifinals. Martina beat Jaeger decisively. The next day Martina read that the Family Circle was the first clay-court tournament she had won in two years. She pointed out that because she had played only four events on that surface during the span, the record wasn't so bad. But by then the chorus had gone home. Her next opportunity to catch its attention will come on the red clay at the French Open beginning next week, the tournament she has been focusing on since the conclusion of the indoor season.
Three weeks ago Martina took over the No. 1 ranking in women's tennis from Evert Lloyd, who, along with Austin, has been her primary rival for the top spot the last three years. Regardless of their inner turmoil under competitive stress, Evert Lloyd and Austin rarely display any emotion on court, and they almost never give away a match. Concentration is their gift, consistency is their greatest weapon, attrition is their overriding strategy. A temperament such as Martina's can be a wellspring of brilliance that brings tennis fans to their feet cheering, but, unharnessed, and with Evert Lloyd or Austin across the net, it's about as helpful as a clubfoot.
While Evert Lloyd, at age 27, has won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, Martina, at 25, has won but three—Wimbledon in 1978 and 1979 and the Australian Open just last December. She was ranked No. 1 off and on from 1978 through 1980 and has been no lower than third for six of the last seven years. She has won more money in a single year ($865,437 in 1981) than any woman who has ever played the game. She is second only to Evert Lloyd in career earnings ($3,847,752 to $3,808,904). She has been virtually invincible on the indoor circuit the past four years. She is easily the best doubles player around today. Yet her chapter in the history of tennis isn't as memorable as her gifts indicate it should be.
"You see, it always comes easy," she says, somewhat hesitantly, as if she were discussing a jinx. "I waited for it. But when I look back to '78...if I'd worked as hard back then as I do now.... But at least I know I still have plenty of time. It's not like I'm 30. I'm still ahead of where Billie Jean was at this stage, and she had a pretty great career."