x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Navratilova is still the queen of court

Although she would enjoy one last hurrah, July 2 1988 marked the beginning of the end for Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon.

Although she would enjoy one last hurrah, July 2 1988 marked the beginning of the end for Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon. Eight times previously she had appeared in the women's singles final and eight times she had kissed the Venus Rosewater Dish - the silver salver presented to the champion - before photographers arced around her on the Centre Court. Now, for the first time, she was left holding the inconsequential side-plate awarded to the runner-up while Steffi Graf, then aged 19, moved around the lawns holding aloft the prized trophy that the fallen champion had come to regard as her personal property. Having already supplanted Navratilova as world No 1, Graf had emphasised her superiority with a 5-7, 6-2, 6-1 victory.

Long before this defeat, Navratilova had felt threatened by Graf's burgeoning talent. So in awe was she of the teenager's powerful groundstrokes that it was rumoured she had secretly sent forth a member of her inner-circle to buy 20 similar rackets to those wielded by Graf and respray them to resemble those for which she was paid millions to use in an attempt to fool her sponsors. As Navratilova would discover, the magic lay in the right hand of Graf not the wand she employed to conjure winners from every corner of the Centre Court that afternoon.

Denied the chance of a ninth Wimbledon singles title and thereby breaking the record she shared with Helen Wills-Moody, Navratilova was gracious in defeat. "I wasn't nervous or uptight. "But Steffi was hitting winners all over the place. She gets to balls no one else can. I got blown out the last two sets," said the Czech-born American who surrendered nine games in a row from 1-0 up in the second set.

"So it wasn't that tough to accept losing. I could feel what she was feeling, have that same joy because I know what the feeling is. Steffi is a super player and a nice human being. If she can keep winning, then great. It's possible I could win Wimbledon again, I would love to win it one more time. But you can't be greedy. Eight ain't so bad, you know.'' But nine is better and two summers later Navratilova, who had also been beaten by the German in the 1989 final, finally fulfilled that ambition when she beat the American Zina Garrison 6-4, 6-1 in a one-sided slaughter.

"They don't put an asterisk beside your name accompanied by the postscript, 'She won but didn't play that particularly well'. It would have been more fitting to play Steffi but Zina earned her place out there," she said.' There are some who claim that Graf, who completed the 'Golden' Grand Slam in '88 when she not only won the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US championships but added the Olympic title to her haul of victories, is the finest women's player in history.

I have to disagree; for me, Navratilova reigns supreme as the greatest sportswoman of all-time. I will not bombard you with the myriad facts and figures but consider her private rivalry with Graf. Despite her age handicap (she was giving away the best part of 13 years), Navratilova won nine of her 18 matches against the German, five of their nine grand slam meetings and, at 34, defeated her younger rival 7-6, 6-7, 6-4 in their last slam meeting in the semi-finals of the 1991 US Open. Navratilova was the ultimate champion.

Until someone greater comes along, and while the Williams sisters continue to dominate in this era they have little directly to measure themselves against from the current generation, Navratilova will always remain as Queen Martina to me. rphilip@thenational.ae