Tennis: Navratilova rides the breeze

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THIS is hardly the time to be upstaging Martina Navratilova, but Mary Pierce is making a fair job of it as something of a sideshow to the Volkswagen Cup at Devonshire Park.

The runner-up at the French Open is attracting a good deal of media attention while participating in the doubles with Jana Novotna and in the 21-and-under singles event.

Navratilova contributed to Pierce's projection yesterday by paying her a compliment worth pinning to the scoreboard: 'By getting to the final of a Grand Slam and beating Steffi, pretty decisively as well, she's definitely got the potential to be a star, and also probably to be No 1.'

The nine-times Wimbledon champion even suggested how Pierce should respond to the proliferation of lenses: 'Smile a lot. They're going to print those pictures anyway so you may as well look good. Enjoy it while it lasts, although it's hard to enjoy it when they start to take pictures through a bedroom window.'

Last week, Navratilova practised with Pierce in London. 'We just played a few games and then it started raining. She hits the ball hard on any surface. Here the ball doesn't bounce so high for her, but she can still smack the hell out of it.'

In fact, Navratilova's only criticism of the 19-year-old French player is that she has not put herself among the competition here. 'I'm disappointed she's not playing the main draw,' she said. 'I'd love to play her on grass.'

The defending champion's own form on a sunny, windswept day was erratic. The 6-1, 6-2 parts were fine, but a 2-6 opening set revealed a vulnerable Navratilova, slow and error-prone against an opponent who had previously taken only a couple of games from her in two matches.

It so happens that the opponent was Laura Golarsa, a 26- year-old Italian who is developing a habit of raising her game when one of the greats is preparing for curtain calls though by no means ready to be shoved off the stage.

Five years ago, Chris Evert was looking forward to making a farewell appearance on the Centre Court at Wimbledon when she encountered Golarsa on Court One in the quarter- finals. Golarsa, the first Italian to advance to the last eight since 1933, was within two points of victory before Evert recovered to win 6-3, 2-6, 7-5.

Navratilova's comeback to advance to the quarter-finals here was not nearly so dramatic. Once she broke serve in the opening game of the second set, the 37-year-old's confidence returned and the shots began to flow. Frustration seeped into Golarsa's play, and she received a code violation for hitting a ball into the crowd.

When she played Navratilova here in 1991, Golarsa had been unable to take a game. This time she was determined not to be intimidated. 'She started out very well,' Navratilova said. 'The wind was playing havoc with all the shots, but you have to give her credit. There was a long way to go. I was not worried. If she keeps playing like that, and she wins, there's nothing to worry about, just say 'Well done'. But I knew I would pick it up whether she kept it up or not.'

Other leading contenders had to settle for saying 'Well done'. Lori McNeil, preparing for a first-round match against Steffi Graf at Wimbledon, was defeated by Kristine Radford 1-6, 7-5, 6-3. Helena Sukova, who beat Navratilova in the 1987 final, lost to Yayuk Basuki 6-2, 7-6. And last year's runner-up, Miriam Oremans, who eliminated Navratilova in the first round of the French Open, was beaten 6-3, 6-3 by Linda Harvey-Wild.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 39