Tennis: Navratilova wavers on farewell engagement: McGrath shows no mercy on departing legend while Britain's No 2 man feels strain against Novacek during his quarter-final

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SO IT WAS goodbye to Devonshire Park for Martina Navratilova, who has won the singles title here on 11 occasions, seven times en route to triumphs at Wimbledon. She was outplayed in the quarter-finals yesterday by Meredith McGrath, a Swiss-based American, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4.

After congratulating her opponent, the 37-year-old Navratilova returned her spectacles to their case, sat in her chair, took a sip of Coke and placed her racket - undamaged - into its bag while the 5,600 Centre Court spectators

waited patiently to accord her a standing ovation.

Sue Barker was hoping to interview her on the court for the BBC, but the great champion gave the crowd a wave, and then bolted to the changing-room. 'Walking off the court was hard,' she said. 'I wanted to do a TV interview, but when I got close, I had to run. Walking on the court and walking off the court is when it hits you. It's been very emotional all year.'

McGrath, a 23-year-old former Stanford University student, maintained a commendably cool approach, the impression heightened by her wearing sunglasses. Though losing the first set tie-break, 7-5, she had seen enough to realise that Navratilova could be shaken were sufficient pressure applied.

At the end of the 11th game, Navratilova tossed her racket towards her chair - albeit gently - in frustration, chiefly because her volleys often lacked punch.

There were moments, too, when her serve wavered in the breeze, and she was broken four times consecutively to lose her advantage and find herself 0-1 down in the final set. Seagulls seemed to chorus concern as they flew over the court. 'What are you saying now?' Navratilova called to them.

Even the town hall clock chimed ominously as her time began to run out, though at the stroke of five she was back in the contest, breaking for 4-4 with inspired passing shots. McGrath's response was spirited. She created three break points, and Navratilova was unable to save the last, falling to her knees when directing a forehand volley wide.

McGrath, a novice when beaten in straight sets in their only previous meeting in California four years ago, held her nerve when serving for a place in the semi-finals, but required three match points to finish the champion.

'I was playing the legend about 95 per cent and the ball 5 per cent,' McGrath said of the climax. 'On the first two match points, I hoped she would lose it, but she's too much of a champion to roll over and die.'

McGrath's serve on the third opportunity was struck so well that Navratilova could only place her racket on the ball and watch it dribble towards the net and bring the contest to a close.

'Those last two games could have gone either way,' Navratilova said. 'They went her way because she played better. I could have volleyed better, but the reflexes just weren't there today. It's what happens when you get older. Some days are just much worse than others.'

And so on to Wimbledon. 'I think - I hope - that the occasion of just playing Wimbledon itself will overcome the feelings that I have now,' she said. 'Just playing Wimbledon is enough. You don't have to think it's your first one, your last one, or whatever.'

In the semi-finals here today, McGrath will play Yayuk Basuki, of Indonesia, while Natalia Zvereva, the only surviving seed (No 4), faces Linda Harvey-Wild, who, it may be remembered, eliminated Navratilova in the second round two years ago.

Mary Pierce's match practice in the 21 and under event was halted in straight sets in the second round by Ludmila Varmuzova, a Czech-born citizen of San Marino, aged 15. Pierce said playing on grass had produced a few aches and strains.