As the glorious weather that had blessed the opening days of the tournament gave way to thunderstorms, the 35-year-old Navratilova, seeded three, became the first big name to go out. It was her earliest exit in the US Open since a first-round loss to the American Janet Newberry in 1976, and she had not previously been defeated in the second round. What effect yesterday's 6-4, 0-6, 6-3 setback will have on her future grand slam prospects remains to be seen.
Maleeva, the youngest of the three Bulgarian sisters on the tour - Manuela defeated Navratilova in the fourth round here two years ago - sensed her opponent's nervousness just as the laughing Shaun Stafford (ranked 160) had in the first round and did not leave it too late to make a big play for victory.
'I was nervous at times - absolutely,' Navratilova admitted. 'For her it was the match of her life. For me it was a second-round match in what could be the very last grand slam event of my life, I don't know. I'm still planning to play a full schedule next year. For me time is running out.'
Maleeva, though failing to win a game when Navratilova recovered her form in the second set, was able to compose herself the better for the finale after a rain delay had brought the players off the court during the opening game of the third set. She saved two break points in the fifth game, an achievement which jolted Navratilova's confidence to such an extent that she was vulnerable to an attack on her own serve. After leading 40-15 in the next game she was pegged back and misdirected a forehand drive over the baseline to give Maleeva, ranked 27, an opportunity to take control.
The only moment that the Bulgarian showed the slightest sign of faltering was when she double faulted at 40-15 when serving for the match. On the next point her serve was solid enough to make Navratilova scramble a backhand return into the net.
Navratilova, who boasts a record 160 singles titles and was competing in her 20th US Open, will hardly console herself with the fact that she can now focus on her forthcoming handicap challenge match against Connors on Las Vegas.
The opening night of the latest Connors Show could not have been a bigger hit if it had been stage- managed. A cool evening was perfect for a player attempting to push back the years; the audience had come to worship him; and his young opponent froze like a startled rabbit in the Flushing Meadow floodlights. For the record, his name was Jaime Oncins, from Brazil.
Connors' entry to the arena on Wednesday, surrounded by security staff and a posse of photographers, would have made Muhammad Ali seem incognito. After an hour and 49 minutes, the record 114th performance concluded with a 98th US Open victory, 6-1, 6-2, 6-3: Jimbo's first Grand Slam win of the year. A 40th birthday cake was brought to the court, and the sycophancy could have been cut with a knife.
We ain't seen nothin' yet. 'You're the greatest, and I love playing here, and I'll see you Friday night,' the hero told the crowd, even though the order of play committee was not due to meet until yesterday afternoon.
Connors versus Ivan Lendl next in the second round: the 36th confrontation between two of the great rivals of the sport. They have not played each other for four years, and Connors has lost the last 16 matches in the series, which stands at 22-13 in Lendl's favour. Connors won the first three of their six Grand Slam meetings (the 1982 and 1983 US Open finals and the 1984 Wimbledon semi-final), Lendl proving superior in semi-finals at the French Open (1985) and Flushing Meadow (1985 and 1987).
Among their more contentious matches was the one at Boca West in 1986, when Connors stormed off court in the fifth set after a row with the umpire. At the Masters in New York Connors called Lendl 'chicken' and accused him of deliberately losing a round-robin match.
Before advancing toward the latest duel Lendl required four hours and 23 minutes to win his first-round match against the Peruvian Jaime Yzaga, 6-7, 6-1, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, and looked drained by the effort. 'I had trouble finishing off what I started,' he said. 'It bothers you because you just make it more difficult than it is. But it is over, and the next match starts from scratch.'
At 32, he no longer commands the same awe with his groundstrokes and stamina. Oncins, unable to hold a candle to Connors at the birthday bash, defeated Lendl in the second round of the French Open, 8-6 in the fifth set.
One thing has changed since Lendl and Connors last played. Lendl was granted US citizenship in July. Not that Connors expects that to make a difference. 'I'll have 20,000 of my best friends at the match,' he said.
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