Tennis / Wimbledon '92: Navratilova still defying youth after all these years: Paul Hayward on the enduring qualities of a veteran champion in her 20th Wimbledon

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SO there she was again. Old Martina, face of the 1980s - make that the late 1970s, too - slicing her way past another opponent 12 years her junior. Has nobody told her tennis is a kid's game? No wonder poor Katerina Maleeva kept balefully shaking her head as if troubled by a persistent phantom.

The effect of women's tennis is to make the players old before they are young, but Martina Navratilova has progressed through a different time dimension to the burn-out generations so far below. This, remember, is her 20th Wimbledon (can you honestly imagine the thing without her?) and the 18th year in which she has reached the quarter-finals or better.

Yesterday, on her way to a 6-3, 7-6 victory in the gloom of Court One, she looked the epitome of health and fitness. As ever. Would that we could be like her. On the way to a record 158 singles titles Navratilova has managed to squeeze in work for underprivileged and abused children, support for the Ethiopian Relief Fund and a prominent role in the Sierra Club, a wildlife and nature organisation. Not to mention the Women's Sports Foundation and the Women's Tennis Association.

Hang on a minute. She also backs the Ms Foundation and Planned Parenthood, collects Art Deco pieces and manages to keep alive five dogs, two of which are called Yonex and Puma. Sport is evidently never far from her thoughts.

Navratilova has seen the face of the women's game change, and her recent attack on some of the younger players for not being politically involved suggests she does not like everything she sees. She admits to missing the days of her great rivalry with Chris Evert, though that may be because she associates that time with unquestioned pre-eminence (eventually) in the activity she learnt on the clay courts of Prague.

Recently Navratilova was presented with an award by Evert at, appropriately enough, the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was to mark Navratilova's achievement in passing Evert's figure of 157 singles titles, and was a globe emitting pin pricks of light for all the venues where the 158 not out had been accumulated. Evert, who is now 'Sportscasting' for NBC, admitted handing over the shining orb with a 'fixed smile'.

Evert talks and enjoys her retirement, Navratilova plays on. The British living room will be different when she goes (in June, anyway). Not a few once-a-year tennis watchers got bored when Navratilova hogged Wimbledon's big Saturday, but now she has become the adored veteran, pursuing a 10th win in opposition to upstarts who have usurped her position and created a new order, mostly founded on attrition.

The formula, Navratilova said yesterday, has much to do with training and diet. 'I'm thinner now than most people in their 20s,' she said. No alcohol. No dairy products. A low-fat and low- sugar intake. 'If I eat a steak now I know I'm going to feel sluggish the next day,' she said. Perhaps it is not such a great life after all.

Monica Seles is next, and if she can talk as big a game as Navratilova, Don King might start sniffing around the tennis game. 'If I'd limited myself I'd never have made it out of Czechoslovakia,' Navratilova says. 'On the evidence of the last 15 years, I'm the favourite. If you take the last 12 months, she is, and I'm the underdog.'

So what about tactics then, Martina? 'I'm not going to tell you that, am I? The coach of the Washington Redskins wouldn't tell you his strategy before the game. Obviously she's good when she has time, so I'm going to try and rush her. I'm going to mix it up a bit, hit her some low balls. Give her some junk. What have I got to be afraid of? It's not like going into a boxing ring and having my head knocked off.'

With talk like this, there must be more than a few reporters hoping Navratilova never joins Evert in the bleacher seats ('age is a state of mind, and I seem to be defying it pretty well,' she says). To the obligatory question about hunger (for success), she says: 'I'm very hungry right now. For food that is. I'm having Indian food tonight, for about the 10th time since I've been in London.

'I heard an interview with Elton John the other day, and he said music was his connection to life. That's how it is for me, with tennis.' We noticed.

Maskell mimicry,

(Photograph omitted)

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