Everybody loves Martina in defeat

Click to follow
WHEN did we start caring about Martina Navratilova? At gate four, outside Wimbledon yesterday, as Navratilova made her last (and losing) appearance inside, there was an alarming man from Scotland. He was wearing a scarlet tee- shirt - 'Jesus Saves' - and a Union Jack handkerchief around his neck and dark glasses. He was waving a placard at passing motorists that read 'By Christ You Are Saved'. He talked of a past in drugs and violence, and here, you felt sure, was someone in some way hostile to Martina Navratilova, glad to see her go: a foreigner, a lesbian, this great brute of a person in spectacles, who year after year trampled over all those nice cute girls from western Europe. No, he was not glad, said the Scotsman. 'I haven't got the right to judge anybody,' he said and smiled rather sweetly.

Yesterday, it probably would have been better for almost everyone concerned if Navratilova had been led out by the men in green blazers to face a ball-serving machine set on 'v . . . easy'. Somehow, after all this time - 22 Wimbledon appearances, nine championships - Martina Navratilova had the country behind her. Love would not be the word, but respect, at least, and a kind of affection. The crowds ambling about in overfilled casual clothes on the dry grass at Wimbledon made one thing clear: large, fierce public figures are indeed able to reposition themselves in the English imagination - even become heroes. The trick, probably, is to smile - and to seem likely to lose. Look at John Prescott.

It's taken 37-year-old Navratilova a while to reach this point, 'longer than I thought it would have' she has said. First she was a Communist waif, 'like that girl they brought over from Sarajevo' said one spectator, then she was an American businesswoman with a snazzy Aspen lifestyle and an oversized entourage. She never seemed right for full English approval, and she never fitted the cosy, first-name condescension of the television commentators - Martina. But this year it happened, in the nick of time, in time for her to disappear.

A group of four highly excited women could be heard shouting: 'She's going to do this] She's going to do this]' and ran off whooping, and singing, 'Here we go] Here we go]' past the champagne stalls. Most others were more muted: 'It's just this year,' said Ann- Marie Bell from Mansfield. 'She's just come out of herself.' She has relaxed on TV, done something with her hair. 'She's got under your skin a bit,' said Susan Bell, her sister. 'Winning - year in, year out.' Another teenage girl said: 'I'm a great fan, because my sister's called Martina.'

When he had stopped talking, the man with the gentle Christianity and angry appearance worried about what he had said. 'Don't write anything about compromise,' he said. 'I wouldn't be able to show my face in Scotland. I am intolerant.'

A Spanish woman also played yesterday, and won.

Martina's sad farewell, Sport

(Photograph omitted)