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Navratilova gets one final fling at French

The two-time French champ isn't worried about the competition or the players who say she should stay retired.

By Associated Press
Published May 24, 2004

PARIS - Martina Navratilova has never been one to let others dictate what she should think, say or do. So it's really not too surprising that she'll compete at the French Open this week at age 47.

It's her first Grand Slam singles tournament in a decade, part of a last hurrah during what she says absolutely will be her final season of competitive tennis.

At this point, it's about more than the wins and losses, the trophies, the money. It's about producing a few more mental souvenirs - for herself and fans.

"There's always something new going on out there that makes it memorable for me," Navratilova said Friday.

She won the French Open in 1982 and 1984, part of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, to go with 31 in doubles and nine in mixed doubles. Navratilova retired in 1994, then came back as a doubles player in 2000.

Amazingly, she still has what it takes to play elite doubles. A mixed doubles title with Leander Paes at Wimbledon last summer made her the oldest champion in that tournament's history.

"There's still not too many people out there that are in better shape than she is," said Zina Garrison, who lost to Navratilova in the 1990 Wimbledon final. "Martina goes about everything at 100 mph. She still eats extremely well, and she still works out really hard. Her body looks like a 25-year-old, easily."

Of course, the demands of doubles are, well, about half those of singles. Like most things, that doesn't daunt Navratilova.

"What is there to be afraid of? Losing? We're playing tennis; it's not like I'm getting into a ring with Mike Tyson. Then I'd be afraid," she said when French Open organizers granted her a wild card.

"Tennis is not a contact sport, and I've never been afraid in my life."

That goes for on the court and off. At 18, she left her parents and defected from Czechoslovakia, later becoming a U.S. citizen. For years, she was made to feel like an outsider because of her homosexuality and candidness.

More recently, Navratilova heard complaints when she played singles at a 2002 Wimbledon tuneup event (beating 22nd-ranked Tatiana Panova, who was 25). Young players wondered aloud whether she should be taking a spot in the draw.

Jennifer Capriati voiced a similar concern about the French Open, saying last week, "I just hope that instead of some youngsters that are upcoming, they haven't shunned them away and just decided to give it to Martina. I understand her being a great champion, but you've got to make way for new players coming up."

Friday's draw matched Navratilova against Gisela Dulko, an Argentine who has never won a match at a major and was born the year after Navratilova's second title at Roland Garros.

Win that, and she could play Conchita Martinez, who beat Navratilova in the 1994 Wimbledon final. That was Navratilova's last singles match at the All England Club, though presumably she will try to persuade organizers to let her bid farewell again next month.

After teaming with Paes for her record-tying 20th Wimbledon title (nine singles, seven doubles, four mixed), Navratilova spoke about what keeps her going.

"The response that I've gotten from the people has been such that I just didn't want to stop," she said, "because people are saying how inspired they were by what I'm still doing out there.

"And that's what my message has been: "Don't let age ... bring you down or make you think that you shouldn't be doing something.' "

It's always something special when stars summon their best at a past-their-peak age, from Jack Nicklaus' Masters victory at 46 in 1986, to Randy Johnson's perfect game at 40 last week.

A 39-year-old Jimmy Connors thrilled fans by reaching the 1991 U.S. Open semifinals. Virginia Wade and Billy Jean King were 40 at their last majors. Navratilova won't set a record if she beats Dulko: A 54-year-old woman named Madeline O'Neill won a match at Wimbledon in 1922.

But Navratilova could be the last to play so well for so long.

"She won major championships in her teens, her 20s, 30s, 40s. That's unique," said Pam Shriver, Navratilova's partner for 79 doubles titles, 20 at majors. "We may not see anything like it ever again."

The last time Navratilova played singles at the French Open, in 1994, she lost to Miriam Oremans in the first round, Navratilova's earliest exit at a major in 18 years. She broke her racket against a chair and dumped it in a garbage can.

"I kind of wonder what's so special about playing Roland Garros one last time for her. Maybe she's using the French Open to prepare for Wimbledon. She might think if she plays one singles match at a major it will help," Shriver said, then paused. "I should have said, "at least one singles match.' You can't put it past her to win."

[Last modified May 24, 2004, 01:00:32]

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