Navratilova enjoying life on the outside

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The Independent Online
On semi-finals days the outside courts are quiet meadows. As the Ivanisevic, Sampras and Becker cannons went off, thunderously applauded, on Centre Court yesterday there were merely water pistols elsewhere as the juniors and doubles partnerships went about their relatively unheralded business. The peripheral areas were rather like the pitch of the unfortunate camper at Little Big Horn who went over the brow to complain about the clamour.

This will have been a strange experience for Martina Navratilova, who is accustomed to the atmosphere of the bazaar at this stage of Wimbledon. The nine-times singles champion, now 38, was on Court Two in the mixed doubles yesterday, reaching the semi-finals with Jonathan Stark by beating Sandon Stolle and Mary Joe Fernandez 7-6, 3-6, 6-3. Yet with the greatest respect to partner and foes, the crowd had eyes for only one player. Even while Stark was serving, the subject of their desire was difficult to ignore. "Come on Martina," they shouted.

Navratilova has gone from being an unloved quarterback of a young woman to a slab of the fabric, due mainly to her 18 championships here and an unsurpassed compilation, among men or women, of 167 career titles.

Navaratilova retired from competitive singles at the end of last season, following a Wimbledon final which saw Conchita Martinez carrying the dish and the multiple champion being transported on a shield. In the interim, it appears, Navratilova has not retired to the couch with a packet of nachos.

She may have brought slightly more grey hair than we remember to the courtside yesterday, but otherwise it was the status quo. There were the baggy shorts, the spectacles, removed at the change-overs in the manner of a preppy at study's end, and of course there were the trademark mannerisms.

Her eyes went to the heavens at moments of drama, the right palm banged against the racket face and she effected a 360- degree spin when excited. The darker side, however, seemed to have been removed.

In bad times she had the air of a Sampras, who, with tongue out and slumped body, resembles a dog locked in a summer fete car park. Martina, though, is a far happier bunny these days. As she left the court she nourished the crowd of young autograph hunters leaning over the rails like chicks yearning for meal.

On the way out there was an umpire's plea for spectators to remove their property. It will take a legion of helpers to remove the baggage Navratilova has left here over the years.

Much has changed in the sport since the most prolific of champions first graced these lawns, not least in the sphere in which she found herself yesterday. Modern doubles is as much about covert conversations and ritual celebration as the game itself. While each point must start with a serve, it seems it must be terminated with either a finger-tip touch, a hand slap or a high five by the victors.

Throughout the game there is another habit which does not please the mothers. A lot of saliva has dropped on the courts these past two weeks, not least in the quarter-final between Becker and Pioline, which almost meant the sandbags had to be called for. Yesterday's surprise spitter was Natasha Zvereva, who seemed to be highlighting the spot of a disputed call when she deposited.

This practice may have been eradicated by the time the new Martina Navratilova makes it into the ladies' finals. The onerous sobriquet lies at the moment in the junior girls with 14-year-old Ana Kournikova. For those whose narrow perspective of Russian women is hairy-chinned, dumpy figures throwing bits of potato into the family cauldron, she made a most arresting sight yesterday as she arrived on Court Two.

Kournikova is a product of one of tennis's foremost factories, Nick Bollettieri's Brandenton Academy in Florida, where her image, as much as her potential, has been cultivated.

The prodigy that came on court yesterday was tanned, bejewelled and in possession of long, blonde, pony-tailed hair that took two bands to keep in place. Overall, the impression was of someone who would mature to become much like the television characters who attach themselves by line to a plastic sledge and then rescue spluttering swimmers from the Pacific.

The Russian clearly had the Bollettieri microchip installed as she thumped out the Academy's systematic snappy service and forehand, accompanied by a two-fisted backhand. This, though, was not enough to combat the more substantial, and older, Tamarine Tanasugarn, of Thailand, who triumphed 7-6, 6-3 in their semi-final. As Kournikova cried into her pillow last night, however, she could have consoled herself with the thought that these things used to happen even to Martina Navratilova.