REMEMBER THIS? SPORT'S MAGIC MOMENTS OF 1994 : Navratilova era ends wit h glorious defeat From the try that gave Great Britain hope to the goal that even Pele would have been proud of

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The Independent Online
TENNIS : Pete Sampras's majestic triumph at the Italian Open suggested that the American had mastered clay courts and was capable of accomplishing the Grand Slam; Mary Pierce's stunning performance against Steffi Graf in the semi-finals of the Fr ench Open uplifted the women's game; Andre Agassi's return to form in winning the United States Open breathed life back into the sport.

None of those memorable victories, however, could compare with a glorious defeat.

Martina Navratilova's farewell appearance in a Wimbledon singles final was an emotional occasion which will pass into legend. It encapsulated the reason why so many people camp outside the gates of the All England Club in the hope of purchasing a ticket.

Fascination with individuality and personality is integral to tennis's popularity, and it had taken time for many enthusiasts to warm to Navratilova. She presented a dilemma. On one side, she was one of the few remaining serve and volley stylists in the women's game, a delight to watch. On the other side, her sexuality had provoked misgivings.

Gradually, the quality of Navratilova's play in accumulating a record nine singles titles on the lawns proved to be the deciding factor. Above all, she is great champion, and the Centre Court audience on Saturday 2 July gathered to pay homage.

Earlier, there had been foreboding, especially after the 37-year-old Navratilova had lost in straight sets to a Dutch opponent, Miriam Oremans, in the first round of the French Open. A racket smashed in frustration was Navratilova's parting gift to Paris.

Feeling at home again at Wimbledon, she was encouraged to allow her shots to flow while others suffered indignities; none more than the defending champion, Steffi Graf, who was swept away in the opening round by the American Lori McNeil.

Navratilova was unchallenged in her opening matches against Britain's Claire Taylor, Sandra Cecchini, of Italy, and Linda Harvey-Wild, an American compatriot. Not even Helena Sukova, a bete noire on previous occasions, was able to make an impression.

In the quarter-finals, Jana Novotna took the first set and only one more game thereafter, and in the semi-finals, Gigi Fernandez was quelled, 8-6, in a second set tie-break.

For some, the story was spoiled by Conchita Martinez, who became the first Spaniard to lift the trophy. Navratilova's junior by 15 years, the baseliner dazzled with an array of top-spin passing shots in winning, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

The important point was that as a spectacle the final had matched its billing and the better player on the day had won. Navratilova's legs no longer had the spring of omnipotence, but they carried her proudly on an unforgettable lap of honour.

Before leaving, she paused to pluck a few blades of grass to place among her souvenirs. And her most memorable quote was robust. "I lost the bloody match," she said, "but what a way to go."

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