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Navratilova defies the age-old question of her retirement 'Old codger' enjoys role of artful dodger


This whole thing about age at the U.S. Open is getting tiresome. So it was heartening when Martina Navratilova, in the news conference after her semifinal victory over Steffi Graf Friday, made the perfect, zinging response to the first question asked of her: "Is this the year of the spring chicken and the old codgers?"

"Which old codgers?" she asked.

And then to add deserved insult to deserved injury, she said, "Next to you guys I look pretty good."

She smiled her white, even-toothed, little shark's smile. It drew a laugh from many, including Navratilova.

Martina Navratilova is 34, and yesterday afternoon she played Monica Seles in the final. It's true that 34 makes her kind of a grand old lady in sports, especially tennis, where players hardly out of the cradle-and-rattle stage are competing for millions of dollars in prize money.

And her opponent was a teen-ager, while the person she defeated Friday had reached the advanced age of 22.

But 34 is still not relatively old, it's still not quite even middle age. There are people all over this favored land, and even beyond its shores, who resent this kind of rush to the net of antiquity. Navratilova, happily, among them.

Navratilova made a point that "three of the eight semifinalists are all over 30." This includes two of the male semifinalists, the preacher-somber Ivan Lendl, who is 31, and the hambone Jimmy Connors, who just turned 39.

It's a fact that the older one gets, the greater the chance for injury, the more one may weary of long-familiar routine, and there is the increased possibility that broader interests, and deeper problems, than simply attacking a tennis ball may envelop and distract one.

In fact, when Graf was asked if she could imagine herself playing as long as Navratilova, she said, "No way!"

"If you asked me when I was 21, would I still be playing tennis at 34," said Navratilova, "of course, I'd say no way. I couldn't imagine doing that for 13 more years. You would have a hard time getting up every morning, and the practice and the press and this and that.

"Traveling, everything with you this time around. I had to fill out a questionnaire at the doctor's. They asked me what kind of bed I sleep on. I said, 'Hey, whatever I can sleep on.' I'm usually on the same bed for about a week, at most."

What keeps her going? "What else would I be doing that I enjoy as much?" she said. And in her tough match with Graf, which she won, 7-6 (7-2), 6-7 (6-8), 6-4, it was Navratilova at the end who was just a little more spirited, just a little more deft.

She determined what to do in her head, and then made the rest of herself go along with the program. Oh, sometimes, she had to talk to the various parts, or the various parts spoke to her. At one point in the third set, for example, she reported that her legs "were saying, 'What are you doing to me?' " She responded, more or less, like this: "Shut up and keep pumping!"

She kept to her strategy of trying to keep the ball from Graf's forehand and maintaining pressure on her opponent with her relentless serve-and-volley game.

And, significantly, she learned from her mistakes, the virtues available to the thinking veteran.

It is part of the appealing vulnerability of this great athlete and champion that she is so frank, and admitted she was determined that, when challenged, she "didn't lay down and die, and let the match get away from me, like I used to in the early stages of the third set. I used to get so disappointed when things didn't go my way. Today I just hung in there."

It is the kind of thing that older players use in other sports to advantage over their greener competitors: The gray-haired golfer hits shorter but straighter, or the basketball player doesn't jump as high but can hook an erudite thumb to his opponent's shorts.

Navratilova mentioned that predecessors like Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver played into their late 30s, and Pancho Gonzalez even into his 40s.

I remember seeing Gonzalez in 1970, a white-maned grandfather of 41, beat 31-year-old Laver in five sets, after having lost the first two sets, and this after Laver had only recently won his Grand Slam.

"I don't know how, but Pancho always knew where I was going on the court and hit it the other way," said Laver.

When Graf was asked how she hopes to end her year, she said, "With a nice holiday."

She now begins a short vacation. Navratilova, meanwhile, that ,, spring chicken, must return to the salt mines. And she does it with that little shark's smile, at once plucky and ageless.

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