Tennis: Wimbledon '93: Navratilova looking forward to a happy 21st: The woman with more titles than any other player relishes the unpredictability of grass, especially on Centre Court. Giles Smith reports

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The Independent Online
IN 1992, the city of Chicago declared 12 February 'Martina Navratilova Day', a tribute to her unprecedented brilliance as a tennis player. In Britain we go further, holding an annual 'Martina Navratilova Fortnight', though some continue to refer to it as 'Wimbledon'.

This year at the 100th Ladies Championship at Wimbledon, she will appear for the 21st time and try to win for the 10th. However you carve the statistics, Wimbledon is where Navratilova has more than her fair share of the fun. Perhaps inevitably then, she is one of the true believers in the special nature of the place. In 1985, she wrote in her autobiography, 'I don't think an athlete could ever feel more onstage than you do on Centre Court.' Last week at Eastbourne, she was still on the same theme: 'To me (Wimbledon) is the epitome of what tennis is all about.'

Can she win? Seles is out, Graf may not be fit, and though victory by default is the last thing Navratilova wants or needs, she may never get a better chance. She has said that this will not be her last Wimbledon. But she will be 37 in October, and there is already something mildly comical in the sight of her taking the court alongside kids in pigtails who should really be in school. One forgets this, the minute play begins and she starts pounding her opponent into the dust, but she can not go on for ever.

By way of preparation, Navratilova has pitched up at all the pre-Wimbledon grass events this year - Beckenham, Edgbaston and Eastbourne. Sometimes she was a steamroller, but sometimes she was a Fiat 500 with a dodgy clutch. On this variable form, she could cruise magnificently to the Wimbledon final, or she could go out early to some laughably low-ranked Canadian. At which point, people will doubtless blame her temperament. At Eastbourne in 1987, a ball girl mistakenly fixed up the scoreboard so it read 'M Navratilova v M Navratilova'. 'Well,' the critics said, 'she always was her own worst enemy.'

Clearly this is a strange thing to think about someone who has won more titles than any man or woman (162), and more top-level prize-money than any woman in the history of the game. (Just over dollars 18.5m ( pounds 12.5m): Steffi Graf, in second place, is currently dollars 7m adrift.) And yet there she was at Eastbourne on Friday, working herself into a froth over one line call and a few spots of rain, slinging her racket into the base of the umpire's chair - and this in a match in which she had taken the first set 6-1 in what seemed to be a little under five minutes, against an opponent apparently labouring under the illusion that the baseline was somewhere around the sixth row in the East Stand.

Still, she may occasionally go into a spin, but there is no arguing with her fitness. The autobiography tells us that, after she defected from Czechoslovakia to the United States in 1975, she adopted 'a 'see-food' diet'. Anything she saw she ate. In her early days on the circuit, during the change-over between games when most players would be gulping down energy-intensive drinks, Navratilova would be calmly working her way through a packet of roast beef sandwiches with mustard mayonnaise. After a while, the Boston Globe took to calling her 'the great wide hope'.

In fact, without that period of self- indulgence, she would probably not be the lean machine that she is now. Navratilova was a skinny, boyish child; binges built her a body to work with. 'My new weight gave me some curves I thought I'd never have, and they gave me the idea that I was a full- grown woman at 17.' She then assembled around her the cluster of advisors and counsellors known as Team Navratilova. There was Dr Haas, a nutritional dietician, and Nancy Lieberman, a 'motivation coach' straight out of basketball. There was Rick Elstein, a reflex trainer who reached the parts only ice hockey goalies use. And, most controversially, there was Renee Richards, who was plain old Dr Richard Rasking before the sex-change operation.

Richards gave Navratilova a top- spin backhand, got her to jump into her serve and to stand closer to the sideline like McEnroe. None of this standing at the baseline, plugging the ball back until your opponent shovels it into the crowd out of sheer boredom. Navratilova's first hero was Rod Laver. She was a net-rusher by instinct, an athlete made for grass.

At Eastbourne, where her morning warm-up sessions attracted bigger crowds than most of the actual tournament matches on the outside courts, it was Billie Jean King who was helping her out. King encourages Navratilova to keep an extensive journal about her games and she seems to be getting it ready even as she plays. At Beckenham, watching her up close, you could hear her talking to herself between points: not little commands and oaths, but complete sentences. 'You were a bit late there - like half an hour. I mean, if you're gonna get back, get back.'

This is how she has held it together and seen off the threat from below - though there have been crises. In 1987 she lost in the French Open to Steffi Graf (aged 18) and in the Italian to Gabriela Sabatini (16). 'I was afraid to play my best,' she said then. 'I felt so threatened by those young kids coming up, Graf particularly, wondering whether they were better than me . . . I daren't give those matches 100 per cent. I was scared to find out if they could beat me when I'm playing my best because, if they can, then I am finished.' She even changed her racket at this point, from a rectangular-headed Yonex R-22 to a Dunlop Max 200G - the one used by Steffi Graf - though she switched back shortly afterwards.

As the new players came through, she had her rivalry with Chris Evert to sustain her. She first played Evert in 1973 at a small indoor tournament in Akron, Ohio, and lost. Before they met in the final of the 1983 US Open, Navratilova was asked at a press conference whether she remembered that first meeting: she came back immediately with the match score, the tie- break score and the recollection that, at 4-4 in the tie-break, Evert had passed her at the net. Small wonder some think that Evert's success was Navratilova's principal motivation. The night after she beat Evert for the first time (at the sixth attempt, in Washington in 1975), she had to take a sleeping pill to beat down her excitement. 'I dream about Chris quite often,' she said in 1986. 'We are not always playing tennis. Sometimes it's basketball, sometimes table tennis, and I don't always win. Then I wake up with a start like I've been through a nightmare.'

All the way to retirement in 1989, Evert was the more popular. When they met in the 1983 US Open final, Navratilova looked up and saw a plane buzzing above the court with a message trailing from the back, 'Good luck, Chrissy - from Lipton Tea'. Mild mannered Miss America was always odds-on to go down better than a psyched-up ball-clobberer from behind the Iron Curtain. In this, Navratilova was the victim of Cold War prejudices: when people said she was bionic, unsmiling, argumentative, they did so on a reflex. Yes, she argued with umpires. But she has always been as quick to dispute calls which went in her favour. And her refusal to beam prettily is by no means an absence of humour. 'You can't really smile when you're beating someone 6-1, 5-1 - that embarrasses and hurts the loser, and I'm pretty sensitive to that.'

Even now, Navratilova commands less money in sponsorship than the more 'marketable' Jennifer Capriati and spent the whole of the 1980s without a clothing endorsement. You can not but relate this to her sexuality. Her affairs with Judy Nelson and with the feminist writer Rita Mae Brown were widely written about, with the media's usual generosity of spirit. Where Chris Evert had 'lovers', Navratilova had 'lesbian sex nests'. She may be the greatest woman tennis player ever, but the sponsors back off, just because the word 'out' has more than merely tennis connotations in her case.

The absurdity of this is that Navratilova is a personality in a sport which tends ever more towards personality white-out. How many of today's touchy automata would go into a tournament relishing its unpredictability? 'You can't play it safe on grass,' Navratilova said at Eastbourne last week. 'That is my favourite thing, to just react and come up with shots I wouldn't have to come up with in normal circumstances.'

She is more popular here than anywhere - in 1987, she thought 60 per cent of her fan mail came from Britain. At Wimbledon there will be many wanting her to do it just one more time, urging her on as she urges herself, although possibly not in such long sentences.

(Photograph omitted)