Tennis: Martina's mercy mission pays off

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AS THE aged lady with still the brightest lamp in the game - and a lambasting racket - 37- year-old Martina Navratilova showed up here on a

tournament-saving mission of mercy. She was asked to appear by the Women's Tennis Association when Steffi Graf withdrew. At that point Il Foro Italico was a very bare cupboard indeed. Only the 1993 champion, Conchita Martinez (hardly a ticket-seller in the same league even with old Mother Hubbard), and the comatose four-time champion Gabriela Sabatini had any allure.

The SOS went out for Martina, who lost to Martinez in the quarter-finals a year ago and had not intended to enter. Yet here she is in another final, her third of the year, following a snappy 6-2, 6-3 victory over an anonymous Romanian, Irina Spirlea, who had removed the lame-nerved Sabatini at the starting gate.

Shooting for her 168th career title today, Navratilova will have to outsmart and outsmack the No 3-ranked Martinez, to whom she gives away 16 years. Martinez, in another quickie (63 minutes to Martina's 67), dusted a qualifier, Karina Habsudova, 6-1, 6-2, for her ninth straight match win in the crimson dust of the Foro.

If Martina can come through, bandaging up this sorely wounded tournament, she will be up there with the Crimea's Florence as far as mercy missions are concerned.

Habsudova went through the arena quicker than an image on fast-forward, coaxing hardly a sweat, and absolutely no anxiety from the defending champion, Martinez. 'It was like a stroll on a pleasant sunny afternoon,' Martinez said.

But the woman trampled on during that stroll, who comes from Bratislava, had enjoyed her moments throughout the week. Five victories enable the 20-year-old Slovak, a sturdy blonde, to become the lone qualifier in tournament annals to get so far. The reward for her and Spirlea was their most sumptuous payday - dollars 30,000.

Martina's bold style and acrobatic volleying on the faster- than-usual clay pulled her out of a couple of tight spots, notably 7-5 in the third set over the Argentine Ines Gorrochategui, who had beaten her last month on American dirt. In the quarters, her surge from 4-2, 40-15 down in the second set to take five of the last six games for a

6-2, 7-5 triumph over Naoka Sawamatsu of Japan, who ranks 23rd, was particularly memorable.

Navratilova originally popped up at the Foro as a chubby 16-year-old in 1973. She lost in the second round, but recalls, 'I got something from that tournament. About 5 kilos. I fell in love with gelato.' But dirt is not her favourite dessert so she has played here only seven previous times in 22 years. In her three other Roman finals, she lost to Chris Evert in 1974-75 and - her most recent clay final - to Monica Seles in 1990. Martinez has beaten her in the quarters twice.

Arriving in her 374th career final, Martina is not worried that three years have passed since the last one in the dirt. 'I can play on this stuff. I won the French twice, you know.

'It's more a question of the tournament saving me, not me saving the tournament,' Navratilova said. 'I'm on sort of a guilt trip. I've played badly on clay this year before this (3-3) in three tournaments and when the WTA requested that I come to Rome I wanted to do a lot better than that. I didn't want to feel guilty by letting them down. So I worked hard to prepare.'

As she had day after day, Navratilova attacked her foe's second serve, and followed with lunging, winning volleys. Spirlea went for broke on her passing shots. She clouted 28 winners to Martina's 19, but rang up 26 unforced errors to the winner's eight.

(Photograph omitted)