Tennis / Wimbledon '94: Martina falls at the last: Martinez claims a place in Wimbledon history as the dream of a Centre Court legend is scuppered

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The Independent Online
HISTORY and Wimbledon go hand in hand. But on a day when the past was on everyone's mind, the future took centre stage as Conchita Martinez thrillingly denied Martina Navratilova a 10th women's singlestitle on her last appearance at the All England Club.

As an occasion, it was unique. As a sporting contest, it was a classic - destined to live all the longer in the memory for having so dramatically departed from the script. Almost everyone on a packed and stiflingly hot Centre Court wanted Navratilova to win, but any disappointment they may have felt will have been outweighed by the superb quality of the tennis and the knowledge that the 22- year-old Spaniard, playing in her first final in a Grand Slam event, thoroughly deserved her 6-4 3-6 6-3 victory in 1hr 59min.

It was the first time a Spanish woman had won the women's title at Wimbledon. 'I am really sorry that she couldn't win it,' Martinez said of Nav

ratilova. 'But I'm very glad that I did.' Born in Monzon, just south of the Pyrenees, Martinez lives in Barcelona, power

base for the most successful generation of Spaniards ever.

Martinez's triumph continued an unprecedented run of Spanish success in Grand Slams, coming four weeks after her compatriots Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Sergi Bruguera took the French Open titles. But while Sanchez and Bruguera were always serious contenders in Paris, the idea that Martinez might win Wimbledon, in spite of being the world No 3 and seeded equivalently, was pretty far- fetched. Until, that is, Steffi Graf went out.

Graf's first-round elimination threw the women's event wide open, and as Navratilova moved easily through the tournament, so it looked as if she would cap her last Wimbledon by extending her record number of singles titles at the age of 37. It was a tantalising prospect.

One thing was always clear: Navratilova's greatness was not in doubt whatever happened on Centre Court yesterday. And by playing such a brave and skilful part in a match of shifting fortunes and brilliant shot-making by both players, her reputation is, if anything, enhanced.

As Navratilova said, she gave everything. 'I've nothing to hang my head about.' The power and athleticism of her pomp have diminished, but not her touch, guile or tactical sophistication. In the end, she had to surrender to a younger, bolder, harder-hitting opponent who had to contend with her own difficulties before recording the finest victory of her career. 'I lost the bloody match,' Navratilova said. 'But what a way to go.'

The contrast in styles alone made it a fascinating encounter. Navratilova, still the consummate serve-and-volleyer, risked the deepest of approach shots to get to the net and cut short the rallies. For Martinez, brought up on the clay courts of her native land, the premium was on pace and accuracy as she hit from the baseline. Her cross-court backhand was devastating and if one weapon was the difference between the two women then this was it.

That Martinez was able to play the shot with such freedom said much for her mental approach to an occasion that could easily have overwhelmed her. Neither player showed signs of any tension as they stepped on to the Centre Court, a huge smile of joy, and perhaps a little disbelief, lighting up Navratilova's face. It set the tone for the afternoon. And when Navratilova bounded, almost child-like, back to the baseline for the knock-up, it was clear that she was determined to have a good time.

The way Martinez launched herself into the match suggested that she too wanted her share of the fun, not to say the glory. Her first trademark backhand, the racket-head brought down with ferocious speed and hurled into the follow-through, came on only the third point as she held serve to love and showed that this was truly a contest, not just a coronation.

The match soon settled into a pattern, with Navratilova always looking to get to the net, while Martinez waited for a short enough ball to hit winners from deep. This she did with astonishing precision, and although Navratilova's volleying was as deft as ever, you never felt she could advance with confidence. 'She passed me as well as anybody ever has,' Navratilova said. 'She played the match of her life.'

Service quickly proved to be little advantage to either player, 13 breaks telling their own story. For four successive serice games in the first set, Navratilova was 0-40; she could not complain when she lost it

6-4. She recovered to lead 3-0 in the second, when play stopped for five minutes while Martinez received treatment to a strain at the top of her leg. Navratilova kept the initiative to level the match at one set-all before Martinez wrested it back again to lead 2-0 in the third.

By now every point seemed to be decided by a winner rather than an error, so when Navratilova, having got back to 2-2, double-faulted to lose her serve yet again, it looked ominous. 'Terrible, terrible,' Navratilova said of that moment. 'I was trying to figure out if I should serve and volley or stay back, but my toss was just a little off. I should have caught the ball and started over. I guess you'd have to say nerves, because there is no reason to miss it other than nerves. But I wasn't thinking 'Oh my God, I'm going to double fault,' which is what usually happens.'

At 3-5 Navratilova served what was to be her last game in a 21-year Wimbledon career involving 131 matches. At 15-all she went for a drive volley that was not really on, and Martinez punished it with a backhand. Yet another backhand winner, this time on return of serve, took the score to 15-40 and suddenly the end was near. There was a moment in the final rally when Navratilova might have gone to the net, but she held back. Martinez, you felt, had it from then on. The greatest Wimbledon career ever ended when Navratilova missed a backhand by 18 inches. She stood for a moment, gazing down at the grass as Martinez flung her racket into the air. Then the two embraced at the net, and the crowd were on their feet, knowing they would remember where they had been this day for a very long time.

What followed was as emotional a prize-giving as the Centre Court has ever witnessed, Jana Novotna's tears of last year included. This time the tears were Navratilova's, 'not because I lost. I was crying because it was all over.' The cheers and applause after Navratilova had accepted her runner's-up salver from the Duchess of Kent went on for so long that you wondered whether Martinez would ever get the chance to step forward.

No, Navratilova insisted, she would not be back next year, except to have tea with the Duchess. She had taken a few blades of Wimbledon grass with her as a memento of the place she loves so much that she made a point of visiting a deserted Centre Court on a moonlit night last week. 'I feel this place in my bones,' she said. 'There's no place like it.' And no player like Navratilova.

Men's final preview, page 4

(Photograph omitted)