NEW YORK -- The crowd is with her now, instead of against her. When her nerves are raw, when her serve cracks under presure, they scream her name.
It wasn't always this way for Martina Navratilova at Louis Armstrong Stadium. But she's 34 years old, now, and Chris Evert is retired and she is the familiar face in a game overrun with teen-agers.
So there she was yesterday in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, trying to dodge every peril her psyche and 22-year-old Steffi Graf could throw her way. Every time she hit a winner the crowd screamed, and when it was over, after Navratilova had somehow put together a 7-6 (7-2), 6-7 (6-8), 6-4 triumph, she stood at midcourt and pumped her fists and smiled as the roar poured down from the stands.
"They enjoy the way I put myself on the line and the way I attack, and the spirit that I show when I play," Navratilova said. "And once Chris quit, I got all the oldies pulling for me."
Navratilova, the oldest women's finalist since the open professional era began in 1968, will play the role of old-timer today when she meets 17-year-old Monica Seles for the U.S. Open title.
Somehow, Seles outlasted 15-year-old Jennifer Capriati, 6-3, 3-6, (7-3), in a baseline bash-a-thon that thundered through Louis Armstrong Stadium for 1 hour, 56 minutes.
The teen-agers were supposed to dominate the semifinals. Instead, it was Navratilova who stole the morning and the afternoon, beating the top seeded Graf, scraping her knees on the hard court in a display of a vanishing art, serve-and-volley tennis. In this Open, tennis is the theme, but age is the subplot. Navratilova and Jimmy Connors roll on and leave the kids in their dust.
"I guess we have nothing better to do," Navratilova said. "What else would I be doing that I enjoy as much? If you asked me when I was 21, would I still be playing tennis at 34, of course, I'd say, 'No way.' "
But Navratilova is still playing and still winning, despite enduring a tumultuous summer. She was sued by her former companion Judy Nelson and is due back in court Monday. She also sustained a crushing quarterfinal defeat against Capriati at Wimbledon.
"Obviously, I have been able to put things in their proper place," she said. "I've been able to just play tennis. But when I am on the tennis court, I can play tough."
Navratilova beating Graf was a revelation. The last time they met was in the 1989 Open final, and Navratilova faded in a 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 defeat. It appeared then that her final chance to win the Open had come and gone.
"You have to respect her so much for what she has done year after year to play up to this level," Graf said. "It's remarkable."
Would Graf want to play tennis when she was 34? "No way," she said.
But Navratilova doesn't slow down. She came into this tournament expecting to win even though "I knew the odds were against me more than they had been in the past."
In the final, she is the underdog. Seles is now the re-crowned No. 1 player in the women's game, overcoming off-court controversy. The Australian and French Open champion is now in her third Grand Slam final of the year. But her summer is still clouded by the tournament she missed, Wimbledon.
"I really didn't expect to be in the finals of this Open," she said.
Seles and Capriati played one of those wonderful matches that could serve as a preview of what women's tennis will be like through the 1990s. They slammed shots at one another from the baseline, refusing to cave into the pressure until the final set, when they combined for eight service breaks. After six straight mini-breaks in the tie-breaker, Capriati hit a backhand return into the net to fall behind 5-3, and said, "Oh, oh, that might mean something."
What it meant was the match, Seles eventually finishing it off with forehand down the line and leaping into the air. She laughed. Capriati wept.
"Losing is even tougher when you know you could have had the match," Capriati said. "It was there in your hands, and it slipped away."
Capriati was finally off the shaded court and into the tunnel, wiping the tears from her face and smudging her eye liner. Her rackets were tucked in her right arm and her left arm was around the waist of the mayor of New York.
David Dinkins was leading her, now, walking her into an office, away from the cameras, away from the defeat.
Her bid to become the youngest winner of the U.S. Open ended. Today, she can only watch, as an older legend plays on and hears the roar of the crowd.
1989 -- Virginia Slims of Dallas, carpet, final, Navratilova, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3.
1989 -- Virginia Slims Championship, carpet, quarterfinal, Navratilova, 6 -3, 5-7, 7-5.
1990 -- Virginia Slims of Washington, carpet, semifinal, Navratilova, 6-3, 6-0.
1990 -- Italian Open, clay, final, Seles, 6-1, 6-1.
1990 -- Virginia Slims of Los Angeles, hard court, final, Seles, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (8-6).
1990 -- Virginia Slims of California, carpet, final, Seles, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5 ).
1991 -- Virginia Slims of Palm Springs, hard court, final, Navratilova, 6-2, 7-6 (8-6).
Navratilova-Graf box score
. . . . . . . . . . . . . N . . . . . . . G
1st serve percentage . . . . .72 . . . . . . .62
Aces . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 . . . . . . . 5
Double faults. . . . . . . . . 4 . . . . . . . 4
Pct. 1st serve points won. . .53 . . . . . . .47
Pct. 2nd serve points won. . .17 . . . . . . .22
Winners. . . . . . . . . . . .60 . . . . . . .52
Unforced errors. . . . . . . .25 . . . . . . .19
Break points against . . . . . 5 . . . . . . . 4
Advances to net. . . . . . . .79 . . . . . . .10
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Time of match 2:10