Sad Navratilova goes out with a whimper

It was an unfortunate twist of timing. Just as Maria Sharapova was winning on Centre Court, Martina Navratilova, 30 years her senior, who first appeared at Wimbledon 14 years before the Siberian teenager was born, was saying farewell.

There were just six journalists there for the press conference after her final match here, and it clearly hurt. "It's ended on a definite weird note, to say the least," she said, admitting she had suffered "nerves". "They got to me a bit today - not as bad as they had been in the past." Surely not as bad as all those years ago when, wearing an ill-fitting dress donated by Fred Perry, she had first played at the All England?

It would be nice to think Navratilova is sanguine about her final match, but she didn't sound it. Yesterday she wrote that she had spotted the ability in Sharapova when she first saw her, aged five. Asked to recall that again, Navratilova said: "I don't remember her particularly. I mean, I've said that about a bunch of kids." That will have to change once she opens her own tennis academy.

Despite Navratilova's sourness, the world preferred to witness Sharapova, and that was surely a good thing. Times, and champions, have changed. But it's never easy to say goodbye, especially when you are the greatest women's player of all time.

The 47-year-old didn't look like that yesterday. In fact she finally looked older, slower, more careworn - and not so certain. The straight-sets defeat in the semi-finals of the women's doubles, during which her partner, Lisa Raymond, looked downcast throughout, hurt. It also ended Navratilova's bid to beat Billie-Jean King's record of 20 Wimbledon titles. That mark will now be shared and probably never beaten, as so few leading players now play doubles as well as singles.

This was Navratilova's 27th Wimble-don. And she wanted to go out in a final - not on a windswept and sparsely populated Court 13 where spectators took advantage of changeovers to crane their necks and peer at the scoreboard on Centre Court. Little Navratilova could do - even an amazing, blundering air shot at the net - could fully engage their attention. She struggled throughout and only held her serve twice.

The 7-6 6-4 victory by an exuberant Ai Sugiyama - defending the title she won last year with Kim Clijsters, missing through injury - and her partner, Liezel Huber, was deserved. "The way it ended was very anticlimactic," Navratilova admitted, saying she felt "a lot less emotional" than the first time she retired.

Her best chance of capturing the record was, in fact, in the mixed doubles, the title she was defending with Leander Paes - but that also ended in defeat, out on the same court, late on Friday.

She looked deflated. Twice she implored herself to "come on" after winning shots, but it was half-hearted. What was more revealing was a steady tapping at her head with her racket after an error. She was irritated.

Her partnership with Raymond is curious, even if the two will go forward and compete at the Olympics. Navratilova will be the oldest competitor in Athens and said that was the goal this year, not Wimbledon or the US Open. She also confirmed that this would indeed, finally, be her final year. No more comebacks.

A lot of improvement will be needed if she and Raymond are to win gold. They lacked co-ordination and belief, and three times clashed rackets as they went for the same ball. Sugiyama, in particular, exploited their lack of teamwork, and Navratilova was all too often lobbed. Her volleying was patchy, she charged the net and at times seemed oblivious to the fact that this was doubles, not singles.

Navratilova had, of course, entered all three events at Wimbledon. Her participation in the singles, 10 years after her last match, was meant to sharpen her doubles play. But despite her 46-minute first-round demolition of Catalina Castano, making her the oldest winner in the Open era, she stirred up more headlines over the wisdom of her taking part.

Despite all that the crowd have loved her, which wasn't always the way when she first burst on the scene as a chubby Czech before winning 18 singles Grand Slam titles - half of them at Wimbledon. They will have loved her a little less after her words yesterday.

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