NEW YORK -- Martina Navratilova was dressed in a floral shirt, black jeans and white sneakers, now, darting to the television studios, answering the same round of questions about her age, her career and her summer.
She had left another younger opponent beaten and breathless in a third set in a U.S. Open quarterfinal yesterday. It wasn't her greatest show at Louis Armstrong Stadium, but she still hit the notes that have made her career a long-running symphony. Thirty-four years old and seeded No. 6, she beats a drum of volleys, this time pounding a 19-year-old named Arantxa Sanchez Vicario into the hard court for a 6-7 (6-8), 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 victory.
As Navratilova stepped over cables and made her way under the tunnel to yet another interview, her coach, Craig Kardon, stood by and smiled. For months, they had worked together to refurbish her career for one last, extended encore. And, now, that long, last run to retirement may be taking place.
"She has to seize the moment," Kardon said. "She has to stay in the present. If she lives it, if she enjoys it, she'll do well."
The years and tournaments roll by, the opponents grow younger and the matches get tougher. Just reaching the Open final with a chance to win her fifth title is no sure thing for Navratilova.
Standing in her way in her 12th Open semifinal tomorrow will be No. 1 seed Steffi Graf. Graf unloaded on No. 8 Conchita Martinez, 6-1, 6-3, in yesterday's other quarterfinal. Blocking Navratilova's rearview mirror are two teen-agers headed for a semifinal collision, No. 2 Monica Seles and No. 7 Jennifer Capriati.
But for one day, at least, the fragility that had marked Navratilova's game in 1991 was erased. The serve that had deserted her in a quarterfinal match against Capriati at Wimbledon was coming back. And she was charging the net on every point, cutting through a swirling wind on a slate-gray day and playing fearlessly when she was only three points from defeat in a second-set tie-breaker.
With the score 4-4, here was Navratilova at the net, daring Sanchez Vicario to pass, and then watching a forehand flutter long. It was the opening she needed against the No. 4-seeded player, who hops around the court like a rabbit in search of dinner.
"My mind was all over the place on that point," Navratilova said. "I thought about a lot of different things out there. But once the point was about to start, I was able to bring it right there to that very moment, which was the key. I was able to stay in when I had to, which is right before the point started every single time. That was the key."
Navratilova said this is the most difficult summer of her career. Knee surgery last year slowed her and sapped her fitness. A palimony suit filed by her former companion Judy Nelson forced her to split her time between the court and the courtroom. And there was Wimbledon, and that match against Capriati when she was bullied off her turf and double-faulted away her title.
"She needed a rest, a long rest," Kardon said. "You can't get much worse than Wimbledon. You can only get better. For a long time, she was trying to do the right things, but she wasn't playing well. Her serve is better now. Much better. And this is great. The pressure is off Martina now."
The pressure is on others. It's on Seles, the Australian and French open champion who was halfway to a Grand Slam before pulling out of Wimbledon. It's on Capriati, 15 and trying to learn what it takes to win two more important matches. And it's on Graf, the woman who won the Grand Slam in 1988 and nearly left the tour last April.
"I wanted to stop for a while," Graf said. "Then I got home and had a few days off and I said, 'Let us get the racket.' "
The women's tour hasn't been the same since Graf won Wimbledon. All of a sudden, that forehand of hers is menacing again, and she is No. 1 again.
Graf is the strong, silent type of this Open, getting on and off court so quickly you hardly remember what she looks like. She beat up on Martinez, who said, "I don't think I had a chance, because I could not play in the wind."
In the old days, Navratilova inspired that same fear. But not anymore. Sanchez Vicario kept her on the edge for 2 hours, 12 minutes and came off the court saying, "I had a lot of possibilities, but I couldn't finish it."
She could not close out a champion.
Navratilova will not go away easily. She is the underdog now, the crowd favorite. The cheers echo for Navratilova in the stadium and follow her into the tunnel and out to the locker room and back again. The symphony plays on.
U.S. Open schedule
Featured matches in the U.S. Open (seedings in parentheses):
11 a.m.: Jim Courier (4) vs. Pete Sampras (6), men's quarterfinals
After 2 p.m. (time approximate): Michael Stich (3) vs. Ivan Lendl (5), men's quarterfinals, completion of suspended match
OC 7:30 p.m.: Jimmy Connors vs. Paul Haarhuis, men's quarterfinals
Steffi Graf (1) vs. Martina Navratilova (6), women's semifinals
NB Monica Seles (2) vs. Jennifer Capriati (7), women's semifinals