Spain's calm conqueror: Simon O'Hagan believes the destroyer of Martina's dream can be more than a one-hit wonder

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SOME sporting encounters are remembered more for the loser than the winner. The women's singles final at Wimbledon last month was a good example. This was Martina Navratilova's big day, when she bade farewell to her beloved All England Club after perhaps the greatest Wimbledon career ever.

The cheers, and the tears, were for Martina. She it was who lingered afterwards for the photographers and an adoring crowd, she whose press conference was almost a state occasion in itself, whose name commanded all the headlines the following morning.

Did Martina win Wimbledon? It might have felt like it, but in fact she did not. And therein lies the challenge facing Conchita Martinez, the 22-year-old Spanish woman who was supposed merely to be a hand-maiden at Navratilova's coronation but ended up running off with the crown.

As Martinez sets out this week to try to add the US Open to her Wimbledon title, she knows that she stands to go down in history less as the author of a great triumph of her own than as the destroyer of a dream - not just Navratilova's but that of almost everyone on the Centre Court that sultry afternoon, and millions more beyond.

Not that even the most ardent Navratilova supporter felt any resentment towards Martinez; she was far too brave and skilful and whole-hearted for that. She was, without doubt, the better player, a deserved winner who saw her chance in her first Grand Slam final and seized it with relish.

But can Martinez do it again? Can she add more Grand Slam titles to the tournament nobody expected her to win? Only by doing so can she put in a claim to be ranked among the greats, rather than the one-hit wonders.

History is on her side. Recent women's champions have tended not to stop at one title. Gabriela Sabatini, whose sole Grand Slam title is the 1990 US Open, is the exception. Before that, Barbara Jordan was the last woman to have troubled the engraver only once, though her victory in the 1979 Australian Open was somewhat devalued by a boycott by the leading players.

We all know why that is. The Navratilova/Evert era having given way to the Graf/Seles era, opportunities for anyone else have been strictly limited - the role of women like Martinez, it was assumed, was to provide the fodder in the quarter-finals and semi-finals. But now, with Graf faltering, the women's game is more open than it has been for years, and for those looking hard enough, it was not such a surprise to see the tall dark Spaniard come through to join the elite.

Martinez, like all the leading Spanish players, is based in Barcelona, but she was born 100 miles to the west in Monzon just below the Pyrenees, where her father was an accountant. She turned professional at 15 and has become another player typical of those her country produces: hard-hitting and possessing a well-honed, if slightly mechanical, baseline game very much geared to the clay courts she grew up on. A heavy serve lifted her above most of the rest, and she ended her first full season, in 1988, ranked 40 in the world. Since then she has only ended one year outside the top 10.

All impressively consistent stuff, and a tribute to one of the women's game's most enduring coaching partnerships. While most of the other top players - notably Martinez's compatriot Arantxa Sanchez Vicario - seem to change coaches about as often as they change their rackets, Martinez has had a long-standing coach in the Dutchman Eric van Harpen. Most observers agree that he has been instrumental in her success, to the extent that when, a few years ago, they had a brief separation, her game noticeably suffered.

'Conchita had a mental problem,' one Spaniard close to her says. 'She was being too negative about her game, having difficulty accepting herself. Eric changed all that. He really is the only person who knows how to motivate her.' But the big step forward - beyond merely being one of the best of those classed as also-rans - was a while coming.

Martinez was having no trouble picking up some of the lesser titles - three each in 1989, 1990 and 1991, one in 1992, and at her favourite Grand Slam tournament, the French, she was an impressive performer, reaching the fourth round at her first attempt in 1988 and the quarter-finals for the next five years running.

Her big breakthrough, the tournament that made people think that Martinez might not just be a domestic rival to Sanchez but a world contender in her own right, was last year's Italian Open. This is the tournament where the clay-court season gets serious, acting as a pointer to the French Open, and Martinez won it with a 7-5 6-1 victory over Sabatini to lift her to No 6 in the world, then her highest ever ranking. By the end of 1993, during which she also reached the Wimbledon semi- finals for the first time and won five titles altogether, she had risen, barely noticed, to No 4, well placed to exploit the cracks that were starting to appear above her in the increasingly uncertain form of Steffi Graf.

All the while, van Harpen's technical skills were proving almost as important as what he could offer her psychologically. It was van Harpen who oversaw her switch from a double-fisted to a single-fisted backhand, helping create one of the most devastating shots in the women's game.

The complete woman player would be made up of bits of various players. She would have the serve of Brenda Schultz, the forehand of Mary Pierce, the volley of Navratilova, the athleticism of Graf, the indomitability of Sanchez. But her backhand would be Martinez's, a shot of precision and power whose effectiveness, like that of almost any shot in any sport, comes from the preparation: feet in position, big back-lift, perfect balance, an almost effortlessly clean swing of the racket, and a flowing follow-through to complete the circle.

It was this shot which started to make the difference this year, helping her to a second successive victory in the Italian Open and a then career-best semi-final place in the French Open - performances which set her up nicely for Wimbledon. Nobody really thought her a contender, though. The label of clay-court baseliner was stuck on too tight. But that was to overlook the fact that for women to beat each other from the back of the court on grass was not so improbable, even less so when the unthinkable happened and Graf got knocked out in the first round.

That blew the event wide open, and in through the gaping hole stepped not Navratilova but Martinez, with backhand passing shots, Navratilova said, that were better than anyone had ever produced against her. That, and her ability to stay calm on an occasion that could easily have overwhelmed her, were decisive.

Martinez's triumph was another chapter in the remarkable story of Spanish success, coming after Sanchez and Sergi Bruguera had won the French titles. Indeed, it added piquancy to the sub-plot of the Sanchez-Martinez rivalry, which until then had not amounted to much, so undisputed was Sanchez's reign as the queen of Spanish tennis.

'Conchita winning Wimbledon was a difficult moment for Arantxa,' one Spanish tennis writer says. 'Suddenly here was a Spanish woman doing as well as her.' Set against Sanchez - proud, combative, a Grand Slam champion at only 17 - the Martinez character is both softer and more open, formed away from the extreme heat of the fiercest publicity, and since Wimbledon it has acquired a sheen of confidence that has not escaped Sanchez's notice. It suggests there is something to be said for not having your success too young. Barbara Jordan was the last player to win a Grand Slam title for the first time at a greater age than Martinez.

Like many in the tight-knit community of Spanish tennis, Martinez's global existence has not diminished her love of home. In Barcelona with her family and friends is where she is happiest, she says, and while others have chosen to sharpen their competitive edge in pre-US Open events, Martinez has spent the past 10 days in Spain.

Can Martinez do at Flushing Meadow what she did at Wimbledon? Sanchez is reluctant to discuss her merits as a player, but nominates her as one of the four semi-finalists along with herself, Graf and Pierce. Not a very controversial choice as these are the top four seeds, but a grouping, none the less, in which Martinez suddenly does not look out of place. Much depends on Graf, but it might not need her to slip very far below her best for Martinez to take advantage again.