NEW YORK -- Even legends get nervous.
Especially when they're in a stadium on an ugly gray day, staring across the net at a 17-year-old kid who is punching the air with a fist.
Martina Navratilova kept missing these shots by inches, kept scrambling for room against yet another Maleeva, a 17-year-old named Magdalena. She was double-faulting all these crucial serves, pushing ground strokes across the lines, and on the last point of the match, maybe the last point of her career as a `D contender for Grand Slam titles, she dumped this forehand right into the net.
Her summer was over. Just like that. Thirty-five and out of the U.S. Open in two rounds, headed to Las Vegas like some kind of over-the-hill lounge act.
"Gee, let me see why I could be nervous," Navratilova said. "I mean, figure it out. Do I have to spell it out for you?"
In her 20th Open, Navratilova was sent out by Maleeva, 6-4, 0-6, 6-3, yesterday. It was Navratilova's earliest Open exit since 1976, when she lost in the first round against Janet Newberry.
What is there to look forward to now? A made-for-television match against Jimmy Connors? In a parking lot at Caesars Palace?
For Navratilova, four times an Open champion, this could have been a last stand at Flushing Meadow.
She couldn't have come in any fitter, or better, beating Monica Seles two weeks ago for the Los Angeles title, the 160th of her career.
"The time is running out," Navratilova said. "I don't know how much I have in this head and heart and legs. Don't read this that Martina is quitting. I can see the headlines. You know, I am not. But it is pretty hard to think about next year when you lose in the second round like this."
It was an awful way to go. Double-faulting away the first set point. Running through Maleeva six straight games in the second set. Waiting out a 38-minute rain delay. Losing her serve after going up 40-love to fall behind 2-4 in the final set.
"I just didn't close the door when I had the opportunities," Navratilova said. "And God knows, I had the opportunities."
Navratilova has done this before. Against other Maleevas, no less. She lost to Manuela at the Open two years ago. She has lost to Katerina, too. She even played the matriarch of the Maleeva family, Yulia Berberian. But that was in 1970 in Sofia, Bulgaria.
"I guess I will be one of the few players that has lost to all of them, at least once anyway," Navratilova said. "But I never lost to the mother. I didn't beat her badly. She managed to have three daughters after that."
Seems Berberian is a mother-figure on the tour. Moments after her daughter won the match, she was in the nursery near the player's lounge, baby-sitting Guy Forget's son, Matthew.
While Matthew hugged her, Berberian recalled her one match against Navratilova.
"She was 14 and I was 26," she said. "And at that age, 14, she was the most awesome player you could imagine, doing everything with the ball. She was a tall girl. Very skinny. And at that time, she had a boyish build."
Berberian said she never imagined she would raise daughters to beat Navratilova.
For the Maleevas, just getting out of Bulgaria, one of the most repressive countries in the old eastern bloc, was a triumph.
Manuela and Katerina were always so emotional in their matches that Pam Shriver called them "The Boo-Hoo Sisters." But Magdalena is different. She's tougher. Quieter.
"Oh, I hope Maggie is the best," Berberian said.
"When the other two went on the tour, it was like going on the moon. Manuela was one of the first Bulgarians to be let out of the country. But Maggie started traveling at 5 or 6. She is used to this."
But little could prepare her for the pressure of yesterday's match. The crowd roared between serves.
Navratilova kept trying to apply pressure. But in the end, the teen-ager, the player with little to lose, was stronger, while the veteran was brittle.
"Of course you have to believe you can win," Manuela Maleeva said. "I was thinking that maybe Martina was thinking, 'Not another Maleeva.' "
The Maleevas are still alive at this Open, the three sisters tucked in one bracket of the draw. Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere, the No. 9 seed, defeated Louise Allen, 6-4, 6-2. Katerina Maleeva, No. 15, defeated Dominique Monami, 6-3, 6-4.
Katerina and Magdalena could meet in the round of 16, the winner to play Manuela in the quarterfinals.
L "It is very hard when they play each other," Berberian said.
At least they're still playing. For Navratilova, another Open has come and gone, another Grand Slam singles title has slipped from her grasp.
Once she talked of matching Connors and playing on until 40. And now?
"That seems like a lifetime away," she said.
"I am planning on playing next year. I am planning on playing the rest of this year. That is about all I can tell you right now."
Just keep her away from those Maleeva sisters.