Navratilova's three-set victory keeps her grandest hopes alive

September 06, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- There is something about the way Martina Navratilova plays when matches get tight that raises the hopes of her opponents. A twitchy serve here, a wild forehand there.

"She is always a little bit nervous when it is getting close," Barbara Rittner said yesterday.

There also is something about the way Navratilova plays, a month shy of her 37th birthday and in her 21st U.S. Open, that erases those hopes just as quickly. A crucial ace here, a key volley there.

"I just let it rip at the end," said Navratilova. "I said, 'You've got to go down with your best stuff.' It happened at 3-2. I ripped the backhand return and after that I was fine. I should have done that a lot sooner."

What had the makings of the first major upset among the women at this year's U.S. Open turned into another victory for one of its top seeds. After Rittner pulled even at one set apiece and broke Navratilova on serve, that backhand winner carried the former four-time champion a long way.

It carried Navratilova to a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 fourth-round victory over the 20-year-old German. It took her to the quarterfinals, where she will play Helena Sukova. And it kept alive her chances of something she hasn't done in a while: win the Open.

Like most things in Navratilova's life these days, yesterday's victory didn't come easily. But in a sport where her contemporaries are either retired or fading, and some of her opponents were infants when she played in her first Open, Navratilova's spirit remains indomitable, even if her game is no longer invincible.

"Well, it is still a challenge," said Navratilova. "They [the fans] want me to get out there to see if I can still do it. Sometimes I just get tied up inside and I can't let my body flow. That is what happened today."

But spurred on by a Stadium Court crowd that long rooted against her during her rivalry with Chris Evert, Navratilova untied the knots and unleashed the power that has allowed her to stay near the top of the women's game. The fan support did not go unnoticed.

"They are desperate for me [to win] because I am getting up there, and they figure I don't have many good chances at it," said Navratilova, who reached the final in 1991 and 1989 but hasn't won here since 1987. "So this is maybe as good a shot as I will ever have. Given that I probably have two or three years if I can handle it that long . . . they don't want to see me go."

Navratilova, who announced her defection from Czechoslovakia during a tearful press conference at the 1975 Open, could be the only American woman left in the tournament by today. Chanda Rubin, 17, was crushed yesterday by Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 6-0, 6-1, and Lindsay Davenport, also 17, was to play fifth-seeded Gabriela Sabatini last night.

When told of that possibility, Navratilova seemed grateful.

"Thank you for calling me that," she said. "I appreciate it. I mean that because just the other day someone said that they were the only Americans left in the draw. Hello. Hello."

Even with two-time defending-champion Monica Seles still recovering from her on-court stabbing incident, Navratilova is considered a long shot to win her fifth Open. That she has had some impressive results this year, both before and after being sidelined for three months with a foot injury, has at least given her some reason to believe she could win a fifth Open title and 19th Grand Slam singles crown.

Her four championships this year has come on three different surfaces, including hard court at the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles, where she beat Sabatini and Sanchez Vicario back-to-back. It raised her record number of titles to 165, and rejuvenated the hopes that seemed to sag when she was knocked out in the second round of the Open last year.

"I think the time she had off because of her injury has helped her stay fresh," Evert said recently. "With Monica out, I think this is the best chance [to win the Open] she's had in a while."

But Navratilova can't afford to be stretched to the limit too often, especially considering the way those ranked above her have breezed at the Open.

Consider this: it took more than two hours for Navratilova to put away Rittner, ranked 40th; it took 45 minutes for the second-seeded Sanchez Vicario to knock off Rubin; and in just 48 minutes, top-seeded Steffi Graf defeated No. 13 seed Mary Pierce, 6-1, 6-0.

It was not so long ago that Navratilova groused her way through Grand Slams, blaming her losses on balky knees or bad karma. But with Evert at home in Colorado, with John McEnroe in the television booth and Jimmy Connors trying to start up a senior tour, Navratilova has become the Open's golden oldie.

"I enjoyed it then, but I definitely appreciate it more now," she said.

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