Tennis / Wimbledon '94: Navratilova's grand finale shadowed by vibrant youth: In today's women's singles final, age and ability could deny a champion while the interview room serves up issues of real concern

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THE record books are trying to kid us that Martina Navratilova would not be the oldest women's singles champion should the force be with her for a 10th time on her farewell appearance this afternoon.

Do not be deceived. Mrs Charlotte Sterry (nee Cooper), from Ealing, Middlesex, may have been 25 days older than Navratilova at 37 and 282 days when winning the fifth of her titles in 1908, but she was playing in a different game.

Charlotte is the subject of one of the most endearing stories concerning the Championships during what has come to be regarded as a blissful period prior to World War 1.

When living with her parents in Surbiton, it is said, she used to cycle to Wimbledon to compete. A similarity with Navratilova there, though Charlotte's racket was attached to the front fork.

One evening, she returned to find her father clipping the hedge. 'Where have you been, dear?' he asked.

'Oh, to Wimbledon, of course, father,' was the reply.

'Ah, yes,' said father, 'you mentioned it, I remember. You were playing in the final, weren't you. Did you win?'

'Yes, as a matter of fact I did.'

'I'm so glad,' said father, returning his attention to the hedge.

One can imagine Katharine Hepburn, the person Navratilova would most like to see in the stands who is not here (one of the fortnight's trivia questions), playing the part of Charlotte, or beating her in straight sets. Glenn Close would struggle with the role of Navratilova, even if put through a similar fitness regimen.

Though her powers have diminished, as we have witnessed in certain matches en route to what amounts to a command performance, Navratilova is admired and respected for what she has contributed to tennis while establishing herself as the biggest prize- winner in women's sport.

We are about to lose a lot. Along with her athleticism, streamlined by diet and training, and a winning personality, which has survived controversy concerning her sexuality, goes an attacking style of play rapidly becoming a dying art in the women's game.

If the tone of this appears to be heavily valedictory, the reason is that Conchita Martinez, cast as the opponent on the big day, is young (22), strong and well equipped with shots, as a third-seeding conveys, to exploit weaknesses exaggerated by time.

While the greatest champion is about to experience her 12th final at the All England Club, and the 32nd in all four Grand Slam tournaments, the Spaniard is preparing to sample the unique atmosphere for the first time. Looking on will be King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia, who had such a good time supporting Sergi Bruguera and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario at the French Open.

The emotion is such that nerves - on either side of the net - could play a decisive part. Who could forget what befell Jana Novotna when it came to the crunch against Steffi Graf a year ago?

'If Conchita can handle her nerves, it will be a good match,' Gigi Fernandez said after losing to Navratilova, the fourth seed, in the semi-finals, 'and I think she'll be able to do that.'

Asked to summarise the mood among the competitors during the tournament, Fernandez replied: 'There are two sets of sayings. One is, 'Come on, she's won it nine times, that's enough'. The other one is, 'Wouldn't it be great if she won it a 10th in her last year'. That's how I felt before before the tournament started and how I feel right now.'

It is a sentiment Fernandez is likely to share with the majority of spectators on the Centre Court, though Martinez can expect to be accorded the traditional support for the underdog, unless she shows signs of biting back too fiercely.

Martinez has something else going for her. She shared a court with Navratilova during the highest point of the farewell tour before today, having defeated her in straight sets in the final of the Italian Open in May. The roars for Navratilova were deafening.

By coincidence, their four previous matches have been played at the Foro Italica, Martinez winning all but the first. Navratilova, of course, does not do as the Romans do when she plays at Wimbledon, where the grass responds rather more favourably to her serving and volleying than the clay.

The contrast in styles should make for an interesting contest, and in normal circumstances the usual analysis of respective strengths and weaknesses would be presented with a reasoned prognostication to be knocked flat on the day. Circumstances are far from normal, and some people, your correspondent among them, have begun to believe that fate will decree Navratilova a last hurrah.

One thing is certain, whether we hear game, set and match Martin- a. . . or -ez. No player, of any era, will have had a warmer reception when leaving the stage.

(Photograph omitted)

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