THE WIMBLEDON crown of Martina Navratilova slipped over her bespectacled eyes when her serve was broken in the third game of the second set in Saturday's final. What took place in the next game underlined that women's tennis had moved inexorably into a new era of Steffi Graf domination.
Navratilova finessed a drop volley into an expanse of empty court and there, a year ago, the point would have ended. Not this time. Graf checked her progress over the tramlines to her left, bounded across the turf with lengthy strides, and clipped the ball before its second bounce, sending one of her famous forehands past the eight-times champion.
The prospect of a ninth singles title gone, perhaps forever, Navratilova was still marvelling at Graf's acceleration long after the 19-year-old West German had won the match 5-7, 6-2, 6-1 and added a cheque for pounds 148,500 to official career winnings of pounds 1.3m.
"It's her biggest weapon," said Navratilova. "If she doesn't get there she can't hit that big forehand, but she just gets into position so well. She's got incredible spring in her step and is so quick off the mark. She kept running everything down, going for balls other people wouldn't get, and hitting winners off them. She's got long legs, but she gets down. She's the fastest player out there."
Navratilova took the disappointment well and said: "If you have to lose, you might as well lose to the better player on the final day and pass the torch, if you like to call it that." We could only imagine the scene unfolding in California.
It would have been breakfast time in Sacramento. Helen Wills Moody, an 82-year-old semi-recluse reminiscent of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, is visited by an Erich von Stroheim character carrying a silver tray. "Miss Navratilova lost, Madam." A wrinkled arm shoots into the air, bony fist curled in triumph.
Unless the state of the women's game alters dramatically, and sturdy new talent emerges, we can continue the fantasy and move on to 1996. The 27-year-old Graf is on the point of breaking the Wimbledon record held jointly by the 39-year-old Navratilova and the 90-year-old Wills Moody and there is nobody to stop her.
We shall see. Graf's immediate objective is the United States Open at the end of next month when victory would assure her of immortality as only the fifth player of either sex to complete the Grand Slam of the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US championships in a calendar year. Margaret Court of Australia was the last to achieve this, in 1970, although Navratilova, after winning the French in 1984, held all four titles at the same time but not in the same year.
The West German is trying not to overburden herself with too many thoughts on the subject. "I knew that question was going to come up, I was waiting for it and it took so long," she exclaimed during her interview. "Everybody is talking about it, but I am sure I still have to concentrate on every single tournament. I am not going to change anything. When I come to Flushing Meadow, that's when I am going to think about it."
Legend has it that her father built replicas of the four Grand Slam surfaces - rubberised cement, red clay, grass and asphalt - at the family home. This is not true. They have access to a clay court at a local club and one court of their own. Appropriately, the surface is asphalt, which will help prepare her nicely for New York. The disturbing news for Gabriela Sabatini and any other prospective rival who may come along is that this is only the start. " I am sure I can raise my level again," Graf said. " I am going to need another two or three years to be able to do a few things I really needed to do today."
Navratilova, who promised to return to try again, said: "I think Steffi can do pretty much anything with her game," acknowledging that last year Graf was greener on the other side of the net.
FOOTNOTE: Martina Navritilova won a record ninth Wimbledon singles title in 1990, overtaking Helen Wills Moody's record. Steffi Graf went on to win another six.