The French Open bade a startled adieu to Martina Navratilova as a singles competitor yesterday, having been left in no doubt about the 37-year-old former champion's passion for the sport.
After the concluding point of a first-round defeat on Court No 1 by Miriam Oremans, of the Netherlands, Navratilova removed her spectacles, congratulated her opponent, returned to her chair and gave it an almighty whack with her racket. After a cursory examination of the damage, she dumped the weapon in a litter bin.
Jeers initially greeted Navratilova's actions - tennis royalty is not supposed to behave in such a fashion - but the crowd eventually acknowledged the poignancy of the occasion and treated her to an ovation as she departed, moist of eye, responding to the applause with a little wave.
It was the first time for 18 years that Navratilova had lost in the opening round of a Grand Slam championship, and this was her first appearance at the French Open for six years, part of her season of farewell to the tour. It was also, she assured us, the only time she had smashed a racket. 'I should have broken the other one,' she said. 'Something was rattling inside it.'
On reflection, she regretted losing her temper. 'I thought about it later and said to myself, 'Oh great, really setting a great example', but at the time I was too sad to care.'
The sturdy Oremans, ranked No 50 in the world, arrived in Paris with a poor recent record after starting the year with a leg injury. Two thoughts encouraged her when she saw she had drawn the fourth seed: her performance in taking a set off Navratilova on grass in last year's Eastbourne final, and the fact that she would feel more comfortable on the slower clay surface.
Navratilova was passed with ominous regularity when making characteristic approaches to the net in the opening set, and failed to secure an advantage after creating three break points when leading 3-2 in the second set.
She hopes to be able to leave with happier memories from the doubles and mixed doubles events, perhaps even an appearance or two on the Centre Court where she contributed to her 18 Grand Slam singles titles in 1982 and 1984.
Janet Newberry, the American who eliminated Navratilova in the first round of the United States Open in 1976, recently was appointed director of British women's tennis. She would have been encouraged yesterday by the performance of Clare Wood, the nation's lone singles participant of either sex, in defeating Gigi Fernandez, the Wimbledon doubles champion, 6-3, 2-6, 6-2.
'Coming here after three first- round losses didn't exactly make me feel good,' Wood said, 'but this is a great boost for my confidence.'
Wood, who now plays Helena Sukova, the 15th seed, or Laurence Courtois, of Belgium, might be interested to know that there are eight clay courts in Oremans' Dutch village of Berlicum (pop. 9,000), which is almost as many as in the whole of Britain.
Navratilova was not the only big name to depart, though Boris Becker left the grounds before play began. The 10th seed, who has never won a clay-court event, withdraw with a back injury after practice. 'We're very sad to leave Paris this way,' the German's coach, Nick Bollettieri, said.
Becker apparently began to feel twinges in his back before his match with Pete Sampras in the final of the Italian Open. He had treatment in Munich last week, but was able to play two exhibition matches in Paris last weekend.
'Those matches were a test to see if Boris would be fit for the French Open,' Bollettieri said, adding: 'When he practised this morning, the forehand was OK but the backhand gave him trouble, and serving was impossible.'
Becker has been advised to rest and have treatment for 10 days before beginning his Wimbledon preparation in the Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club, London.
Pete Sampras opened with a straight-sets win against Alberto Costa, of Spain, but the unseeded Andre Agassi had to save five set points in the second set of his match against Mats Wilander before defeating the former champion, 6-2, 7-5, 6-1.
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