Still crazy to win after all these years: Each year we love Navratilova more. Jim White explains why nothing beats sport's senior citizens

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The Independent Online
AT WIMBLEDON yesterday, Martina Navratilova was not the only one to be delighted when she won through to the semi-finals of the women's singles. The film crew making a documentary and the biographer researching a book about her final year on the tennis circuit will be sensing the sales boost of the ultimate retirement story: Navratilova looks set to win her 10th and last Wimbledon.

And not a lot sells like longevity. It bestows instant character. Never mind the Aids-awareness sticker Martina wore on her predominantly white shirt or the fact that she had arrived in the All England Club dressed as if fresh from the Glastonbury Festival, there was only one thing apparently worthy of comment about the nine-times champion: her age.

In the pre-pubescent world of women's tennis, it would be scarcely less astonishing if Navratilova, 38 in October, were 138. Her opponent, Jana Novotna, collapsed in the face of a player whose popularity with the Wimbledon crowd appears to have risen exponentially with the number of times she has appeared there. When Navratilova first played at the championships, and everyone hated her for being a manly East European, Novotna was barely potty-trained.

The odd thing is, we shouldn't be so surprised at Navratilova maintaining a position of pre-eminence long past her anticipated retire-by date. Everywhere in sport, oldies are at it.

There have always been the occasional venerable sportsmen - Sir Gordon Richards, racing at 50; Sir Stanley Matthews, trundling down the wing in his late forties; Ray Illingworth, turning out for Yorkshire at 50 - but this year they have been everywhere.

Willie Carson won the Derby at 52; nobody laughed when Linford Christie stated his ambition to break the world record in the 100 metres at 35; and in the World Cup, Roger Milla, the Cameroon talisman, is still waltzing with corner flags at 42 (or so he says: rumour has it he may be five years older, and the way he played against Brazil that may be an underestimate).

Men bearing large cheques are constantly arriving at Nigel Mansell's door demanding his professional services, despite him being well over 40; Graham Gooch remains England's best batsman at 42 (though that is not saying much); and in heavyweight boxing, Mike Tyson could spend 15 years inside and be released a mere stripling, given the rate the competition is ageing.

Indeed we should expect sportsmen and women to keep going longer than they used to. Everything about the physical preparation for competition at the top has improved. Injuries are less frequently cured by debilitating short-term injections than they were, and athletes are much more aware of how to care for their own bodies, with better personal preparation and infinitely more appropriate diets. Gordon Strachan, the vintage Leeds United winger, for instance, has held back aspirants for his position season after season because, he says, of his affection for bananas.

And if you can keep the body trim and fat-free, the brain will do the rest.

'The evidence is you remain just as good or better at decision-making as you grow older,' says Dr Ian Cockerill, of the School of Sports and Exercise Science at the University of Birmingham. 'The problem is, it takes longer to reach those decisions. However, you can compensate for a reduction in your reaction time, as we call it, by the experience of reading situations better than younger opponents.'

The trick is to keep the equation balanced in favour of experience for as long as possible: like Ray Wilkins, say, the 38-year-old footballer who cannily avoids duties such as running, tackling or heading, thus maintaining his physical reserves for a telling, well-read and experienced square ball.

However, the possibilities for longevity depend on the sport. Certain risk-taking activities demand the clear-eyed innocence of youth. Few over the age of 21 would be impetuous enough to ski jump. And international rugby union, once a place where the aged could remain hidden in the pack for years accumulating caps, is getting younger. Speed is now more important than belly power, and besides, all but the brain-free soon tire of presenting themselves for the good kicking that modern rugby union entails.

Some 25 years ago, few sporting pay packages made it worthwhile dragging unwilling limbs into action when you could earn more away from the game. Now, rugby union aside, the daily grind of preparation and participation can be easily endured for another year of hugely lucrative rewards.

Navratilova, though, scarcely needs the extra half a million that winning Wimbledon this year would bring her. Which may be the real reason for her popularity.

'Most people mellow with age,' says Dr Cockerill, and when you see Sue Barker and Tracy Austin politely exchanging words in the commentary box, you couldn't imagine either of them executing a forehand pass these days without an apology. 'Navratilova has maintained the competitive quality you need to succeed. She still loves playing. Particularly winning.'

That is what the crowd at Wimbledon have recognised. It isn't just that she has maintained her physical powers, or simply made the most of what she has learnt. She is also still prepared to give an audience something worth paying for: cold-eyed, hard- edged competition, the stuff of thrusting youth. And when it comes from a greying veteran fighting the inevitability of physical decline, it is a particularly attractive quality. Martina Navratilova is not only old, she is an old winner.

Jana Novotna, by the way, since no one mentioned it, is 25.

(Photograph omitted)

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