Tennis: Martinez poised to take her bow

Bud Collins on how a Wimbledon 'extra' has come to terms with stardom
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The Independent Online
Here is the part Imaculada Conception Martinez - sometimes called Conchita - worries about. It isn't defending her Wimbledon title or crowding the net as frequently as her coach, Carlos Kirmayr, would like.

It's the curtsy or "courtesy", as the Spaniard pronounces the obligatory Centre Court knee-jerk in the direction of the royal box. "I don't want to do it bad, you know," she says.

A champion wants to look right out there with the world watching. "I was really nervous last year, the final," Martinez says.

She is sitting on the front at Eastbourne. In the Channel breeze and sunshine her lovely brown hair streams, and the quick brown eyes gleam, and she is not the Martinez you see on Centre Court with long tresses bundled and banded, her game face screwed on grimly. She is smiling. Often. A toothy, winsome grin that did not surface a lot in earlier, wary days when she "cried a lot and got homesick. My mother wanted me to come home to Monzon. But I couldn't because I knew tennis was my life. My 'obsession' my mother called it, and she was right."

She left home at 12 because there was no way she could improve her game in Monzon (a small town in Aragon) where her fiercest competition came from lonely battles against walls she called McEnroe and Martina. "I beat the wall sometimes. Most of the time it beat me. I went to Barcelona first where I stayed with other athletes of Spanish sports federations. Then to stay in Switzerland, my coach's place. It was the only way."

She learned a lot, but nobody taught the essential curtsy. "Yeah, the final last year," Martinez says. "I wasn't scared of losing. I really believed, getting that far, I'd win. But, that first part, to come on with Martina [Navratilova] who has been there so many times . . ."

Martinez was out of her element, fearful of looking awkward, like a plough horse at Ascot. Martina has curtsied and smiled at the Duke and Duchess of Kent so many times that she could could do it her sleep; curtsy-and- volley, that was her style.

And somehow, on that July Saturday afternoon a year ago Navratilova, with one last curtsy and a pluck at the weary grassblades, departed Centre bathed in the aura of having won yet another championship. The score didn't matter, and that other woman, an extra hoisting the platter of office, was just that - an extra - while Martina remained the star.

"That was fine," says Martinez, the winner, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, maybe out of her element but not her league. "Martina was, is, a star. I'm never going to say I'm a star. I just want to be the best I can, to win the big championships, and I won that one. I was the one holding the trophy. I realise what I did. I felt recognition. I realise more all the time.

At first, maybe it was a little hard. I was the Wimbledon champion, and there were expectations that go with it, especially at the US Open where I didn't play good [a third-round loss to Ginger Helgeson].

"Then it got bad, indoors, losing. I don't like to play indoors. I lost faith in myself. Funny, yes, it happens, even to a Wimbledon champion. The confidence can go fast. I was having trouble with my coach, Eric [van Harpen].

She screws up her face. "Since I'm a little girl, 15, he's telling me what to do, what to think. Sure, OK, for a kid - for a while. At first I was so shy, afraid to talk to people, afraid to speak up to him. I tried to make a break before, but this time I know it's finished. I learned a lot from Eric, but he controls my life too much. He said without him I was nobody, telling me that I can't win without him. He's the reason I won Wimbledon, and only he knows what's best.

"There is a time for everything to be over, and to start again. That was the time. I knew I wanted Carlos (Kirmayr) for my coach, and he was able to come in March.

"Carlos gave me confidence again right away. I could feel he knows I'm good, and he develops my inner qualities and my tennis. With him and Gigi [Fernandez, her friend] I had the right combination. Gigi is older and has a lot more experience. She knows the problems of the tour, and has helped me. Carlos is great on the tennis side. He makes me happy on the court."

"This was great that Conchita felt strong enough to go for freedom," says Fernandez, herself a semi-finalist at Wimbledon last year. "She'd been in a controlled situation for too long. Carlos and I don't tell her what she should do. We tell her how we feel about a situation. She makes up her own mind."

"You know, sometimes in a new relationship a new voice can say some of the same things but sound nicer," Kirmayr says. "Conchita had a reputation for being lazy, not wanting to practice much. I haven't found that to be true.

"But I think we've made practices shorter, more intense, sweeter, still getting the work done I feel necessary, and giving her more time for herself. That makes her happier."

Kirmayr and Martinez have won five of six tournaments together, 26 of 27 matches. In her only loss, to Steffi Graf (6-3, 6-7, 6-3) in the semi-finals of the French Open, she was possibly one point away from taking control. Graf, serving at 3-3 in the decisive set, crashed to 0-40. With one of those break points, Conchita might well have surged past Graf and gone on to win the title.

Fernandez feels that it might have been better that Martinez lost. "She fell behind by reverting to some of her old bad habits, moping around, losing faith. Now she realises how costly that is, what the penalty is. Graf has always been tough for her, a little frightening, but now she sees how she could have won."

Kirmayr agrees. "Conchita wanted to talk about it right after the match. That's unusual in my experience, after a difficult loss. She wanted to go over it, compare our feelings on what went wrong. She'll profit from it."

A year has passed, and Navratilova muses. "Many times I've woken up thinking I won that match," she says. "It was so close, I wanted it so badly. In a way it hurt more than any other. In a nice way, it was a satisfying conclusion on Centre Court. And Conchita deserved to win, the way she played. She has the potential to be a great champion, but she's lacked stability. She's doing well with Carlos, but her work habits have always been questionable. We'll see."

'It's nice," says Conchita, "to know now exactly where I'll be for the first match, and when." Centre Court, Tuesday, 2pm.

Until then she may be practising a few curtsy drills in front of the mirror. A champion doesn't want to fall on her face with the world watching.