Tennis: Age cannot wither the combative matriarch: At 36, Navratilova is preparing for Wimbledon with the energy of a youngster. Paul Hayward reports from Beckenham

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The Independent Online
THE SULPHUROUS odour of teenage burn-out hangs forever over women's tennis, but at Beckenham yesterday there was bold talk of a 36-year- old flourishing again on the courts of Wimbledon. Martina Navratilova may be half-way through her life, but nobody can tell her she is at the stopping point in her career.

Navratilova disposed of Shirli-Ann Siddall from Dorset, 6-1, 6-1 to earn a place in the third round of a tournament that resembles a country fair with some rather good tennis attached. 'I don't come here for the strawberries and cream,' Navratilova said when asked whether her age was not an insurmountable barrier to success in the more famous London suburb of SW19.

Combative, as ever. 'You look at the results rather than ages,' Navratilova said. So we did. She is still ranked No 4 in the world, would you believe. In January she beat Steffi Graf and in February, Monica Seles. There will, of course, be no Seles when Navratilova returns to the scene of her nine previous singles titles at the All England Club this month.

History has relocated Navratilova far above the resentment many British tennis followers felt towards her when she was monopolising Wimbledon. She used to be the Liverpool of the lawns: secretly admired but publicly disliked for winning too much (a very un-British trait). Now she is revered for her longevity, her dignity, and for evoking gallant wooden- racketed days in an unsmiling age of power and money.

Remember how it was when she won Wimbledon every year? Boring, some would say. She spoiled the Saturday of Wimbledon finals weekend. Yet now she is the dogged outsider, the venerable matriarch of women's tennis - and not even the mothers of prosperous Beckenham were prepared to offer the British hope, Siddall, much support yesterday as she tackled a rival exactly twice her age.

It was only when Navratilova slipped from the very peak of the women's game that we got to know her. These days she will tell you about her diet, what she does in the evenings in London. She is as mellow off the court as she is determined on it, and is not so hardened by two decades of media exposure that she can ignore unflattering remarks in newspapers. Yesterday in the press room at Beckenham she spotted a clipping from the Guardian suggesting she had broadened 'in the beam', and was said to be upset by the remark.

In fact, she looks as fit as ever. The hair is shorter, the swinging walk the same. The muscles are impressively honed and the food intake rigorously controlled. 'I eat only what's good for my body,' Navratilova said. 'We don't put leaded petrol in our unleaded cars, so why do we do it to our bodies?' Her latest exercises are to build up strength in her lower legs, because she has calculated that extra mobility and stooping powers are required on grass.

Navratilova has not competed here before and was playing in preference to Eastbourne in a change to her pre- Wimbledon routine. 'As far as hitting the ball goes, I'm hitting it well,' she said, 'but it's just a case of getting my feet organised to play on grass. You've got to make yourself go forward (to the net). I feel like there's a poker in my back pushing me forward.'

So optimistic is Navratilova about her prospects at Wimbledon that one inquisitor was tempted to ask whether over-confidence was creeping in. 'Some things,' Navratilova said, 'you never become blase about, and Wimbledon is one of them.'

The youngsters have been warned.

(Photograph omitted)