Tennis: Martina bitten by the Apple

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WHILE waiting to make his entrance at the United States Open, John McEnroe watched the Mets play the Braves at neighbouring Shea Stadium. The match featured a tantrum of McEnroe proportions, after which Vince Coleman, the Mets outfielder, was suspended for two days without pay.

Coleman was involved in an angry confrontation with the Mets manager, Jeff Torborg, who had intervened in a heated dispute between the player and an umpire. By comparison, Flushing Meadow was sweetness and light as McEnroe eased himself into the second round with a straight-sets win against Michael Schapers.

The mood was joyful even when Martina Navratilova teetered on the edge of elimination in her opening match, gritting her teeth to disguise her irritation as her opponent, Shaun Stafford, beamed like The Joker in Batman.

Stafford, a qualifier from Florida whose world ranking, 160, happens to be the same number as the titles Navratilova has won in a 20- year career, laughed all the way from 1-5 to 5-5 in the final set, and the crowd laughed with her.

'I don't think I have ever had so much fun,' Stafford said. 'I played Steffi Graf on the stadium court at the French Open and I played Conchita Martinez on the stadium court in Australia. I totally froze and played like a dog. This time I did not want that to happen. I thought I may as well have a great time.'

Navratilova was not amused. 'She was laughing whether she won or lost the point, and I am like saying, 'Come on, get serious, wipe that smile off your face',' she said.

'She was feeling no pressure, just having a great time out there, and I am feeling the weight of the stadium on my back.'

Even with this burden, the 35- year-old Navratilova was able to deliver the punchline, breaking for 6-5 and serving the match out, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5. 'It was tough,' she said. 'She came back from behind. It was a great comeback, and they (the crowd) had every right to be excited about it.

'But it was a jolt after last year, having them in the palm of my hand, and now they were the other way. Had it been Jimmy (Connors) playing a qualifier, they would have been going nuts for him. I guess I'm not old enough for that. I have to wait three more years.'

Navratilova and Connors have known for years that New York crowds are distinctive. Andre Agassi is in the process of getting to know them. 'With all due respect to the New York mentality, they never seem to settle down after game change-overs,' the Wimbledon champion said after winning his first-round match against Mikael Pernfors.

'There are not too many places where you can step on the court and people are telling you to go get a job, go on, you bum. I'm trying to be as diplomatic about this as possible. It is not a place you want to play somebody from New York. It is a place where you wish the Davis Cup would always be, is the best way to put it.'

Alex O'Brien, the collegiate champion who almost rattled Jim Courier, learned the lesson early: 'Get on the good side of the New Yorkers.' Lisa Raymond, the college representative in the women's event, followed his lead, pleasing the crowd with a spirited start against Monica Seles before losing to the world No 1 in the second round, 7-5, 6-0. 'You're playing for a bunch of people out there,' the 19-year-old from Pennsylvania said.

Stefan Edberg's relationship with the US Open has been ambivalent. The Swede has endured several unhappy evenings under the floodlights and in 1987 was ordered to play a singles semi-final against his compatriot, Mats Wilander, at 10am the morning after a late doubles match.

Last year, Flushing Meadow was the scene of one of Edberg's greatest triumphs. After stuttering through the early rounds, barely noticed as usual, he enthralled the spectators with a spectacular victory against Courier.

Edberg returned to the Centre Court yesterday, his match against the Brazilian Luiz Mattar starting at 11am, when the majority of the spectators were still wending their way through the traffic.

Mattar, though gaining the initiative in each of the first two sets by breaking in the fifth game, discovered that this merely stirred the champion into action. The stadium was beginning to fill by the time Edberg completed his job, 7-5, 7-5, 6-2.

'I started to play a bit better towards the end and got a feel for the court,' Edberg said. 'After what happened last year I tend to like it here a little bit more. It is a fascinating place. I wouldn't say it's the best place to play tennis, condition-wise. It has the crowd. It has the noise. It has a lot of things going on around it, and it takes time before you get used to it.'

Edberg will next play Jakob Hlasek, of Switzerland, who defeated another Swede, Magnus Gustafsson, 7-5, 6-3, 6-3. Wayne Ferreira, the 12th seed, also advanced to the second round, defeating Jordi Arrese in four sets.

Clare Wood enjoyed the tournament while she could, the last Briton in the singles losing 6-3, 6-2 to Sabine Appelmans, the world No 21 from Belgium.