John Roberts welcomes the return of the left-handed legend, who last played singles at the French Open 10 years ago
Some champions never come back. Others never seem to go away. At 47, an age when many people would think twice about playing hit-and-giggle doubles on a park court, Martina Navratilova is about to compete in the singles at the French Open, one of the world's four major tennis championships.
Her first-round opponent, Gisela Dulko, a 19-year-old from Argentina, ranked No 61 in the world, was not born when Navratilova won the second of her French Open singles titles, in 1984. Navratilova last played singles on the red clay at Roland Garros 10 years ago. It was a memorable occasion, but not a glorious one. Seeded fourth, Navratilova was beaten in the first round, 6-4, 6-4, by Miriam Oremans, a sturdy Dutch player ranked 50th in the world.
After the concluding point of the match, on Court No 1, which is shaped like a bull-ring and is one of the most intimate show courts in the sport, Navratilova removed her spectacles, congratulated her opponent, returned to her chair and gave it a mighty whack with her racket. After examining the damage, she dumped the racket in a litter bin, from where it was rescued by a souvenir-hunter.
Jeers initially greeted Navratilova's actions, but the crowd eventually acknowledged the poignancy of the moment and treated her to an ovation as she departed, moist of eye, responding to the applause with a little wave. It was the first time for 18 years that Navratilova had lost in the opening round of a Grand Slam championship, and it was her first appearance at the French Open for six years - part of her "season of farewell" to the WTA Tour.
Navratilova assured everybody that it was the only time she had smashed a racket. "I should have broken the other one," she added. "Something was rattling inside it." She regretted losing her temper. "I thought about it later and said to myself, 'Oh great, really setting an example', but at the time I was too sad to care."
Although she won the French singles title in 1982 and 1984, Navratilova is perhaps best remembered in Paris for a defeat, 6-3, 6-7, 7-5, by her greatest rival, Chris Evert, in the 1985 final, a match ranked among the finest ever seen. Evert was 30, Navratilova two years younger. A year earlier, Navratilova had beaten Evert in the final, 6-3, 6-1, and had won 15 of their previous 16 matches.
But all that is in the Navratilova history book. True to her philosophy of living in the here and now, the nine-times Wimbledon singles champion sees no reason why she should not exchange shots with opponents less than half her age who have grown up in the current bang-boom era, to borrow a phrase from Martina Hingis.
Named Martina after Navratilova, who warned her that 14 was too young for the body to be subjected to the rigours of the professional Tour, the brilliant Hingis lasted for eight years before retiring in October 2002, aged 22, after two operations. She was no longer able to cope with the power of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, and the pain in her feet.
Navratilova, who was 19 when she became a professional in 1975, continues to compete at the top level because she is still able to win tournaments, at least in women's doubles and mixed doubles.
While the majority of leading players nowadays, particularly the men, only consider entering doubles as a means of sharpening their game for singles, Navratilova is using the singles to tune up for doubles. With that in mind, she may also request a wild card for the singles at Wimbledon, where last year she won the mixed doubles with Leander Paes, of India, equalling Billie Jean King's record of 20 All England Club titles.
"I'm playing better tennis than I have since I've come back," Navratilova said. "It took a long time to get to this point, and I think just practising for the singles - just practising for it - helps my doubles. Of course, playing the match helps my doubles. So that's the whole idea behind it. I just wanted to get some more match play and this is one way to do it."
"It's hard to believe, at her age, what she's doing," said the 34-year-old Steffi Graf, who retired in 1999 with 22 major singles titles to her name, having won the first by defeating Navratilova in the 1987 French Open final. "But Martina is one of the greatest players ever," Graf added. "She is physically in great, great shape. She certainly loves the sport, and she's still eager and works hard at it. So I'm surprised and not surprised."
Graf's husband, Andre Agassi, told spectators after winning the 2003 Australian Open that he hoped to persuade Steffi to play mixed doubles with him at the French Open. He was not aware that she was expecting their second child. "I'm not coming back," Graf said recently. "There might be the occasional exhibition or so, but that's all."
The only red carpet Navratilova is expecting next week is the clay on whatever court she is assigned to. "They didn't put me on Centre Court in '94, I played on Court 1, so I certainly don't expect it now," she said.
A new show court was inaugurated at Roland Garros in 1994. Originally named Court A, it later gained status as Court Suzanne Lenglen, after the French tennis diva of the 1920s. "It would be nice to get on Court Lenglen," Navratilova said. "I played doubles on there. But I don't care if I play on Court 16, it doesn't really matter. The dimensions are still the same, and there will be enough people watching there whether it's a little court or a big court. It will just be one-on-one."
Asked if she was afraid of playing singles in a major championship, having failed to distinguish herself in a couple of Tour events in America this year, Navratilova's response was almost dismissive: "Am I afraid? Am I afraid? If I was afraid, would I be playing? What is there to be afraid of, losing? 'Oh, wow, that's terrible. You can lose a match. Wow.' We're playing tennis. We're on the other side of the court. It's not like, you know, I'm getting into the ring with Mike Tyson. Then I'd be afraid. Tennis is not a contact sport, and I've never been afraid in my life. I'm certainly not going to start now." She added, smiling, "My goodness, afraid ... If I was afraid, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning."
Navratilova became the oldest woman to win a WTA Tour-sanctioned singles match at Eastbourne in 2002, aged 45 years, 8 months. She turns 48 next October. "I asked for a wild card into the qualifying [for singles at Eastbourne] so I have more matches," she said.
Having entered the singles, doubles and mixed doubles in Paris, she is anxious to keep her participation in perspective. "Look," she told reporters in Rome after announcing her plans for the French Open, "you keep asking me how I will do. I had no expectations for doubles, I have no expectations for singles. The only expectation I ever have is absolutely to give my best effort. And whatever that's good for, that's what it's good for.
"The first singles match I played [this year] I got tired mentally in the second set. Things started happening very quickly. But I got better the next week. Somebody said, 'I can't believe you got tired mentally.' Well, I played two singles matches in nine years. You go and try that - and I had exactly two practice sets getting ready for that match. So I'll have had more practice, and I will not be tired mentally, or physically, playing matches. Again, give it my best effort, have a great time, enjoy myself, and hopefully put on a good show for the people so they'll enjoy it. And go from there."
Navratilova's fractured racket would be a fitting symbol of the ailing state of the women's game, handicapped as it is by illness and injury. Justine Henin-Hardenne, the world No 1, will attempt to make a successful defence of the singles title in her first tournament after suffering from the glandular condition, cytomegalovirus. Her Belgian compatriot, Kim Clijsters, whom she defeated in last year's final, is absent because of a wrist problem, and the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, are searching for form and fitness after injuries.
Martina Navratilova was 46 when she won the Wimbledon mixed doubles in 2003.
Arthur Gore was 41 and six months when he won the Wimbledon singles in 1909.
Pancho Gonzales was 41 when he won the longest match in Wimbledon history, beating Charlie Pasarell, 16 years his junior, 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9, in the first round in 1969.
Jimmy Connors was 40 when he reached the second round at the US Open in 1992, having reached the semi-finals in 1991.
Charlotte Sterry was 37 when she won the Wimbledon singles in 1908.
Jean Borotra competed in men's and mixed doubles at Wimbledon as late as 1964, shortly before his 66th birthday.