Sun, May 23, 2004 - Page 22 News List

Navratilova just keeps on going

PROFESSIONAL TENNIS Martina Navratilova, at 47, will compete in her first Grand Slam singles tournament in a decade when she plays in the French Open tomorrow

AP , PARIS AND STRASBOURG,FRANCE, ST. POELTEN, AUSTRIAAND CASABLANCA, MOROCCO

American tennis legend Martina Navratilova returns the ball during her doubles match with partner Lisa Raymond against Australians Bryanne Stewart and Samantha Stosur at the Vienna Energy Tennis Grand Prix in Vienna on Tuesday.

PHOTO: EPA

Martina Navratilova has never been one to let others dictate what she should think, say or do. So it's really not too surprising that she'll compete at the French Open next week at age 47.

It's her first Grand Slam singles tournament in a decade, part of a last hurrah during what she says absolutely, positively will be her final season of competitive tennis.

At this point, it's about more than the wins and losses, the trophies, the money. It's about producing a few more mental souvenirs -- for herself and fans.

"There's always something new going on out there that makes it memorable for me," Navratilova said on Friday in Vienna, Austria, after reaching the doubles final at a tuneup tournament.

She won the French Open in 1982 and 1984, part of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, to go with 31 in doubles and nine in mixed doubles. Navratilova retired in 1994, then came back as a doubles player in 2000.

Amazingly, she still has what it takes to play elite doubles. A mixed doubles title with Leander Paes at Wimbledon last summer made her the oldest champion in that tournament's history.

"There's still not too many people out there that are in better shape than she is," said Zina Garrison, who lost to Navratilova in the 1990 Wimbledon final and now coaches her on the US Fed Cup team. "Martina goes about everything at 100mph. She still eats extremely well, and she still works out really hard. Her body looks like a 25-year-old, easily."

Of course, the demands of doubles are, well, about half those of singles. Like most things, that doesn't daunt Navratilova.

"What is there to be afraid of? Losing? We're playing tennis; it's not like I'm getting into a ring with Mike Tyson. Then I'd be afraid,'' she said when French Open organizers granted her a wild card.

"Tennis is not a contact sport, and I've never been afraid in my life."

That goes for on the court and off. At 18, she left her parents and defected from the former Czechoslovakia, later becoming a US citizen. For years, she was made to feel like an outsider because of her homosexuality and candidness. Sponsors kept their distance.

More recently, Navratilova heard complaints when she played singles at a 2002 Wimbledon tuneup event (beating 22nd-ranked Tatiana Panova, who was 25). Young players wondered aloud whether it wouldn't be better for the ol' left-hander to enjoy retirement rather than take a spot in the draw.

Jennifer Capriati voiced a similar concern about the French Open, saying last week, "I just hope that instead of some youngsters that are upcoming, they haven't shunned them away and just decided to give it to Martina. I understand her being a great champion, but you've got to make way for new players coming up."

Friday's draw matched Navratilova against Gisela Dulko, an Argentine who has never won a match at a major and was born the year after Navratilova's second title at Roland Garros.

Win that, and she could play Conchita Martinez, who beat Navratilova in the 1994 Wimbledon final. That was Navratilova's last singles match at the All England Club, although presumably she will try to persuade organizers to let her bid farewell again next month.

After teaming with Paes for her record-tying 20th Wimbledon title (nine in singles, seven in doubles, four in mixed), Navratilova spoke about what keeps her going.

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