James Lawton: Navratilova continues to set the standard

The Iron Lady of tennis has no time or sympathy for talented players who fail to make the most of their abilities
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The Independent Online

Long after the last ball was hit at Wimbledon, the lady held the stage. Indeed, she was plainly beyond siege. At one point an official of the All-England Club attempted to put an end to her wide-ranging discussion with the world's press but, without the help of a detachment of SAS, the task was plainly futile.

Martina Navratilova, aged 46, greeted the closure attempt with the verbal equivalent of an upturning of a vat of boiling oil. She was simply not for silencing after earlier joining Billie-Jean King on the astonishing mark of 20 Wimbledon titles.

She was prepared to talk about everything a tennis aficionado would ever want to know - and perhaps even a little more. She was, for example, utterly comprehensive when explaining why she and her mixed doubles partner, Leander Paes, took a break from the winning action at precisely the same time. "We had to do pee-pee," she said, adding, with a philosophical shrug, that it was a need that tended to accelerate with the years.

A little more fascinating, perhaps, was her reaction to the 21-year-old Roger Federer's brilliant ascent to the men's singles title. Both Navratilova and Paes agreed that it was a spectacular development for a game badly in need of the irrigation provided by the emergence of classic talent, Paes adding that apart from Federer's magnificent unfurling of the highest ability, there was the uplift provided by an obviously genuine display of passion.

"For a few years some of us wondered whether he cared about the game that much - now we know," Paes said. "He is a huge asset for tennis... a great young player who obviously has so much to give and achieve."

For Navratilova, of course, the ending of her contribution remains something quite uncharted. "I'll be back here next year, of course, but whether or not I play is another matter. It will depend on a lot of things, some of them personal.

"One factor is always going to be whether or not I can be competitive, and obviously I'm going to have to face up to that question. Hopefully by then I will be well into my seventies."

Her greatest reproach, she again made clear, was for those who have never made the most of their talents - a category into which both Federer and his final opponent, Mark Philippoussis, had been firmly placed before this year's event. "It is unforgivable when for one reason or another a talented player does not fully exploit his or her gifts," the game's Iron Lady said.

"It is the duty of those who have been given exceptional ability and it is very good to see someone like Federer come to the line and produce the goods. The whole game benefits."

Eventually, another lady, the one wearing the All-England Club blazer, had her way and Navratilova and her playing partner went off into the shadows. Not, however, before Paes reported his ambition to have Navratilova make a triumphant tour of his native India, where, he assured us, she was a figure of awe in the smallest of villages.

It was an affecting picture - Navratilova, garlanded in flowers, sailing down the Ganges - and whatever the soundness of Paes's estimation of her popularity in the Subcontinent, who could doubt that it would represent the enduring triumph of arguably the greatest sportswoman of the 20th century?

Certainly when you consider her 20th Wimbledon title, you are obliged to go back over all the difficult terrain she covered. Her battles for success and for her own identity were fierce, and when she talked on Sunday night about her plans to return to full-blown vegetarianism - recently she had gone back to eating a little fish because of the need to increase protein - she couldn't help remembering those taut, tearful days when her success on the court came in a rush which also brought intense pressures off it, when she turned for consolation to the junk food industry of her new land of America.

Of course, she came through all of that and a quarter of a century later she carries a banner that the often troubled Williams girls might profitably gain from as they come to terms with the roaring pace of their own power in the game.

Navratilova said that Serena Williams could become the greatest women's player the game has ever known, but first there must be sound decisions about priorities. What did she want most? A peerless record as a magnificently gifted tennis player - or walk-on parts as a celebrity actress.

There is only so much you can do in life if you want to do it supremely well. That, as dusk fell on the Centre Court, remained the most powerful message of Martina Navratilova. It is one that should be dispatched into every corner of modern sport.