Martina enters season of mellow fruitfulness

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The Independent Online

Given the lifestyle, somebody like Martina Navratilova would be a warm contender to reach five score years. Had she taken out British citizenship instead of American, she would not only have provided the United Kingdom with a string of Wimbledon titles, but would be in the running for a telegram from the Queen.

Admittedly, there was the odd puff of tobacco smoke when Virginia Slims was sponsoring women's tennis but otherwise it's an extremely healthy way to make a living. And more lucrative than running Body Shop. Navratilova has amassed more than $20m in prize money alone. And they want parity with the men. Do not put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington. Give her tennis lessons.

While most of her contemporaries have rejoined the real world, Navratilova keeps swinging. Aged 47 in October, she has already made long-playing records, concentrating on doubles after her hit singles. Way back in 1978 she won her first Wimbledon singles title, taking over the crown that had been worn by Billie Jean King and Chris Evert. She was named player of the year 25 years ago, 12 months after the honour had gone to Virginia Wade.

In those days, of course, Navratilova, born in Prague and a United States citizen since 1981, was not as popular as ice cream and certainly not on the Centre Court, where ladies from the shires had a soft spot for her opponents, particularly Evert - who had the good taste to go out with an Englishman.

What Navratilova has proved is that if you stick around long enough, even public enemy number one can become the darling of the show courts. In a BBC poll yesterday, Navratilova, now bespectacled and respected, overwhelmingly dominated the votes as the most popular Wimbledon women's champion. By comparison, poor old Margaret Court of Australia attracted just one per cent.

Commenting on the rough time Serena Williams was given by the crowd at the French Open, Navratilova recalled the hostile reception she was given when she won the US Open in 1984. "The crowd were going crazy for Chris Evert,'' she said. "It was not racist, they were pulling for the underdog. I won but I cried. It's hard to swallow when you feel that you're a good human being. You're penalised for being a lot better than anybody else.''

Navratilova, who has co-written three mystery novels, The Total Zone, Breaking Point and Killer Instinct, is on course to equal Billie Jean King's record of 20 Wimbledon titles. She has made 19 winners' speeches (she won the singles nine times) and is in the semi-finals of the mixed doubles with Leander Paes of India. Seeded five, the pair are the Australian Open champions. They were hoping to play yesterday, but failed to get on court (an earlier start to the day's play would have helped) and if Navratilova is to reach the magic figure of 20, she will have to play twice today, a prospect that does not fill the golden oldie with foreboding. "It's just fantastic to be here,'' she said.

Indeed. Last week Navratilova became the first player to play 300 matches at Wimbledon. She has won 259 of them. By comparison Billie Jean played 265 matches here. Jean Borotra, the longest serving men's player, featured in 223 matches.

With many players avoiding doubles, Navratilova's record is likely to stand the test of time. In all, she holds 167 singles titles, 167 doubles titles. In 1991, four years before she won her 19th Wimbledon title, she became, at 34 years and 10 months, the oldest female finalist in US Open history. The suspicion is that Navratilova will continue to make her annual pilgrimage to Wimbledon for the foreseeable future or at least until she passes King's record.

Outspoken on a variety of subjects, not least the presidency of George Bush, she has teamed up with, among others, John McEnroe and Boris Becker in calling for a reduction in the size of racket heads.

In 2000, as a result of the last change to the rule concerning rackets, the International Tennis Federation decreed that the maximum width of the frame should be 12.5in. A typical wooden racket in the 1970s had a head nine inches wide. To preserve the art of serve-and-volleying, which is in danger of being obliterated by the new wave of baseliners, Navratilova and company want the width of the racket heads reduced to nine inches. This is a bit rich considering that her erstwhile doubles partner Pam Shriver used to play with an implement that looked like a gigantic frying pan.

If the size of the rackets is reduced, Navratilova's impressive collection of records will never be approached, let alone surpassed.

Martina's title haul

SINGLES (9)

1978 bt Chris Evert (US) 2-6 6-4 7-5

1979 bt Chris Evert-Lloyd 6-4 6-4

1982 bt Chris Evert-Lloyd 6-1 3-6 6-2

1983 bt Andrea Jaeger (US) 6-0 6-3

1984 bt Chris Evert-Lloyd 7-6 6-2

1985 bt Chris Evert-Lloyd 4-6 6-3 6-2

1986 bt Hana Mandlikova (Cz) 7-6 6-3

1987 bt Steffi Graf (Ger) 7-5 6-3

1990 bt Zina Garrison (US) 6-4 6-1

DOUBLES (7)

1976 (with Chris Evert) bt B J King (US) & B Stove (Hol)

1979 (with Billie Jean King) bt B Stove & W Turnbull (Aus)

1981 (with Pam Shriver) bt K Jordan & A Smith (US)

1982 (with Pam Shriver) bt K Jordan & A Smith

1983 (with Pam Shriver) bt R Casals (US) & W Turnbull

1984 (with Pam Shriver) bt K Jordan & A Smith

1986 (with Pam Shriver) bt H Mandlikova (Cz) & W Turnbull

MIXED DOUBLES (3)

1985 (with Paul McNamee) bt J Fitzgerald & E Smylie (Aus)

1993 (with Mark Woodforde) bt T Nijssen & M Bollegraf (Hol)

1995 (with Jonathan Stark) bt C Suk (Cz) & G Fernandez (US)

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