Tennis: Navratilova defeated and saluted at Roman circus: Famous 37-year-old shows feet of clay in sapping challenge as Martinez's hard-fought victory is met with loud applause for the loser

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The Independent Online
A CAPACITY crowd seemed to take an eternity bidding arrivederci to Martina Navratilova here yesterday, creating an illusion that she, rather than her opponent, Conchita Martinez, had won the Italian Open, one of the few triumphs missing from the great champion's record 167.

In reality, while the 37-year-old Navratilova looked far from ancient in Rome, the latest stop in her farewell season, her game creaked in the vital joint of the serve and the volley. The latter, once a trusted ally, let her down when she was within one decent shot of taking the first set. Denied this impetus, she was unable to contain the 22-year-old Spaniard, who won, 7-6, 6-4, after one hour and 52 minutes.

When Navratilova last contested the final here, in 1990, she was destroyed on the clay by Monica Seles, 6-1, 6-1, but was able to piece her game back together in time to win her ninth Wimbledon title. It is also worth recalling, however, that the Navratilova of four years ago was able to deal emphatically with the emerging Martinez, 6-2, 6-0, in the quarter-finals here.

The pair have only ever met at the Foro Italico, Martinez winning two subsequent quarter-finals in straight sets and going on to take the title by defeating Gabriela Sabatini in the final last year. This gave the Spaniard sufficient confidence to overcome the distraction of what virtually amounted to a Navratilova benefit audience yesterday. Among many banners in her honour was one bearing the message 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. Navratilova knew only too well that walking was no use whatsoever. She had to be prepared to keep running against Martinez, and towards the net whenever possible.

She performed this so efficiently early in the match that the Spaniard, denied the scope to settle into her baseline game of heavy top- spin, found herself two breaks down. Martinez recovered, levelled at 4-4, but was rocked again by an astonishing shot which gave Navratilova an opportunity to break again for 5-4.

Martinez smashed the ball deep into the corner, and could do little but watch as her opponent sprinted beyond the line, stretch out her left arm and hit a breathtaking forehand across the court.

That was Navratilova's most spectacular moment, prompting the crowd to erupt with delight. What followed in contrast shortly afterwards began a rather sad unravelling process. Serving for the set, Navratilova won the opening two points and then directed a backhand volley over the baseline. She steadied herself, only to net a forehand volley on her first set point.

'I wasn't even nervous,' she said afterwards. 'I just looked up to see where Conchita was and took my eye off the ball.' Having broken rule one, Navratilova was unable to trouble Martinez when a second set point arrived, the Spaniard devouring a lob with a saving smash.

A fifth consecutive break of serve saw Navratilova lose the advantage again at 6-5, and Martinez won the tie-break, 7-5, with her third set point.

Having expended so much energy during the 64 minutes required to decide the opening set - 'it was mental rather than physical fatigue' - Navratilova was unable to capitalise on a 2-0 lead in the second. The effort of saving five break points to hold for 4-3 in a 22-point seventh game tipped the balance, and she won only three more points.

The carnival atmosphere of the standing ovation at the finish almost made up for everything. 'It certainly took the sting out of losing,' she said.

What promises to be a fascinating men's championship begins today, the draw presenting Pete Sampras with a less than comfortable reintroduction to European clay. In the first round, the world No 1 faces Aaron Krickstein, an American compatriot whose durable baseline game is likely to test Sampras's patience.

Michael Stich, the No 2 seed, could find Alberto Berasategui, the winner of the Nice title, waiting for him in the second round, but the German will be relieved not to have to concern himself about Yevgeny Kafelnikov until the quarter-finals. The Russian, meantime, could be a worry for Goran Ivanisevic in the second round and Michael Chang or Andre Agassi in the quarter- finals.

Agassi, who lost to Kafelnikov in the first round in Monte Carlo, opens against Tomas Carbonell, of Spain.

Andrei Medvedev, of Russia, won the German Open in Hamburg yesterday in a wind-blown final over his compatriot, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.