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Navratilova battles, bows out

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Published May 26, 2004

PARIS - Trying desperately to keep her first Grand Slam singles match in 10 years competitive, Martina Navratilova was racing to hit a ball when she stumbled, landing on her knees behind the baseline.

Her opponent, Gisela Dulko, went to the net to make sure everything was fine. After all, Navratilova is a living legend - and the same age as Dulko's mother, 47.

"Yeah, I'm okay," Navratilova said, then grabbed a towel to wipe off the French Open's clay caked to her arms and legs. About five minutes later, the first-round match ended in a 6-1, 6-3 victory for Dulko, a 19-year-old Argentine with zero tour titles, 167 fewer than Navratilova.

Still, it wasn't the result that mattered to Navratilova or the crowd. All were excited she was out there, charging the net, just like the good old days.

"It's not about getting publicity. It's not about getting on TV. It's not about anything else other than just playing matches and getting better," said Navratilova, criticized by two French players who wanted her wild card to go to a young woman. "The best part about today was the fact that I played the match. I wanted to give the people a little more something to cheer about."

She retired in 1994, then came back as a doubles player in 2000. This was her third singles match of the year.

"This is my last year playing," she said. "Not because I couldn't do it for a few more years."

Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Mary Pierce and Conchita Martinez won in straight sets. But Jennifer Capriati struggled in a 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 victory over Yulia Beygelzimer, a Ukrainian ranked 116th, and about whom Capriati said: "I had no idea who this girl was."

It simply wasn't a good day for Capriati, who glared toward the stands, told fans to shut up and endured scattered boos.

Then, one point from victory and ready to serve, Capriati paused and waved her hands at the fans, provoking both jeers and cheers.

"I was kind of using that to help pump me up," she said.

No. 1-ranked Roger Federer, a first-round loser in 2002 and 2003, had a straight-sets victory to open his bid to become the first man in a dozen years to win the season's first two majors.

Juan Carlos Ferrero, who didn't decide until Monday to defend his first Grand Slam title, took a painkilling injection for bruised ribs about 30 minutes before going out and beating Tommy Haas. Fellow French Open winners Gustavo Kuerten and Albert Costa advanced, too, as did U.S. Open champions Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt.

Even with those stars on court, two lesser-known Frenchmen produced the most intriguing statistic. Fabrice Santoro outlasted Arnaud Clement 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 3-6, 16-14 in a match that ran 6 hours, 33 minutes, the longest anywhere in the Open era. It was suspended because of darkness Monday at 5-5 in the last set, and they needed nearly two hours to complete the match Tuesday.

All that time, Venus Williams was waiting to get on the same court.

"My word. How long was that?" she said. "Every other game, I was getting up and warming up again, then I'd sit down."

Maybe that's why she trailed 2-0 in her first match since twisting her left ankle May 8. But she reeled off 10 straight games and beat Tamarine Tanasugarn 6-2, 6-4.

Younger sister Serena played at Roland Garros for the first time since last year's bitter semifinal loss to Justine Henin-Hardenne, when fans cheered the American's mistakes.

"I was just expecting nothing," Serena said after dismissing Iveta Benesova 6-2, 6-2 to applause. Asked whether what happened in 2003 was on her mind, she said, "I put that aside years ago," then paused to correct herself: "a year ago."

The siblings were impressed by Navratilova, with Serena saying, "I was thinking, "How do you play at that age?' She's really an amazing athlete, an amazing woman."

That was more charitable than Amelie Mauresmo or Emilie Loit, who said they thought a Frenchwoman should have been given a spot in the draw instead.

"If I didn't feel that I deserved a place in this tournament, I wouldn't have asked for it," said Navratilova, who won the French Open in 1982 and 1984, part of her 18 major singles titles. "Did I diminish the tournament by playing out there today? I don't think so."

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