Navratilova serves fond farewell

November 16, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Martina Navratilova couldn't stand still. She stood in the entrance to Madison Square Garden's court, the national anthem wafting through the air, and jumped up and down, up and down.

"I didn't know what to expect," she said when it was over. "I didn't know how it would feel."

When the announcer finally intoned her name, the crowd rose and she walked nervously forward, smiling, waving. And then, after slinging a towel around over her head, she bowed in all directions and whispered to the ball girl: "How am I supposed to play after this? I've never had such a greeting."

This is what the crowd of 17,131 had come for, to shower Navratilova with love on what would prove to be the final evening of a glorious career.

And it was what she came for, too, the opening round of the Virginia Slims Championships that could have been -- and was -- the last singles match of her 22-year career.

And the nerves showed.

A deep breath. Some toe lifts.

And then the match with Gabriela Sabatini began -- and was over much too soon.

Sabatini overcame her own jingling nerves that produced double faults on her first two serves to win the match, 6-4, 6-2.

It was a victory that sent Navratilova out of the Slims singles competition and on her way to retirement.

"I thought it was a grand match and I was very focused," said Sabatini. "I had such conflicting emotions. I didn't want to be the one to beat her, but I also thought it would be a great honor to play in her final match."

Sabatini rushed to the net, after Navratilova's final backhand went wide, and hugged her.

"Sorry I won," Sabatini said, but Navratilova was having none of it.

"If you keep playing like that, you can beat everybody," she said.

And through it all, the people cheered as if Navratilova were a rock star.

She stood there smiling, demure, dressed in a fresh, green T-shirt and white shorts, while all around her were in black tie.

"I'm just sad that it's over so quickly," she said. "I wanted this week to last. But if I had to lose my last match, I'd rather lose it to Gabriela because she's a very nice human being, as well as a great tennis player.

"I'm torn between being upset about losing and knowing the career is finished. But it's the right time for me. I'm happy I've been able to retire on my own terms. But there is a lot of emotion in my head and heart."

She exhibited some when she jumped up and down during the post-match tribute, when the Virginia Slims presented her with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle -- which she mounted and tried to start, only to find out it had no gas.

And then came the two ropes from the middle of the ceiling. In a gap between the 1927-28 and the 1932-33 New York Rangers' Stanley Cup banners, they raised Martina's red flag with a yellow tennis ball with 1994 lettered in red in its middle and her name below it in white.

It wasn't exactly the night she had hoped for, but from time to time she dazzled, demonstrating blistering backhands, tenacious crosscourt volleys and aggressiveness at the net.

But the brilliant spurts couldn't keep pace with Sabatini's consistency and wicked passing shots, which made Navratilova look like a 38-year-old more than once as she ran out of legs.

But in the end, she didn't run out of emotion. As the lights dimmed and the crowd cheered and as the music roared, "You're simply the best . . ." she danced around the court, her arms in the air, pointing to the fans, as they screamed back.

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