Navratilova's biggest comeback is with fans One-time enemy now crowd favorite


Martina Navratilova is no longer the road team, the visitor from another country who draws the jeers from Wimbledon to Flushing Meadow. Used to be, she played the opponent and the crowd. Now, she is one of us, one of ours.

She works the tennis stages like Liza with a Z or Miss Ross, belting out standards with touches of brass and sass. Crowds stand when she enters and roar when she leaves, and she gives them a show, every time. No other player ever has made power appear so beautiful or courageous. She is a left-hander with a heart. There may be other, younger tennis divas playing the arenas in different keys, but there is still one and only Martina.

Tuesday night, she will come to the Baltimore Arena to play an exhibition against the latest next great player, Jennifer Capriati, 15, in the First National Bank Tennis Festival presented by The Baltimore Sun. It's Pam Shriver's celebrity event for charity, but, for this year, at least, it belongs to Navratilova.

Navratilova is 35 years old, and she still is winning matches, setting records and creating headlines. Her talent is unquestioned. Her life story fits comfortably in a supermarket tabloid or an encyclopedia.

As always, she is outspoken, whether discussing her interest in liberal political causes or her lifestyle choices. Last week, she ignited a debate when she decried the double standard that surfaced after basketball star Magic Johnson announced he had the virus that causes AIDS.

She told the New York Post the public would be less understanding if she had tested HIV-positive, "because they'd say I'm gay," and that if a heterosexual woman had admitted to sleeping with hundreds of men, the public would "call her a whore and a slut and the corporations would drop her like a lead balloon."

However popular or unpopular her politics or lifestyle may be, the marvel of these past few years is Navratilova's ability to draw adulation from crowds that once scorned her.

Fans once came to boo Navratilova, not to praise her. She was the bullying Czechoslovak cast against Chris Evert, all-American sweetheart. Even if the roles were myths, it didn't matter. Images stuck. It was only toward the end of Evert's career that Navratilova's talents began to be appreciated. Match after match, year after year, Navratilova always would wind up in these Grand Slam finals, playing this wonderful tennis, pumping her fists and willing herself to triumphs. And she transformed herself into an American, legally and spiritually.

"If I had to fight the crowd like I used to in the 1980s, when I was winning a lot, I think it would be too much," Navratilova said. "But the crowds do help me along. They make it more enjoyable to be out there. It's great to show your stuff, to show your fight. That's one of the reasons why I am out there, still playing."

On the court, she remains a bundle of contradictions, serious one moment and smiling the next, a powerful, larger-than-life player with surprising vulnerability. For all her victories and all her titles, she still gets nervous on big points. You can see it in the way she bounces the ball before serves or spins the racket waiting to hit a return that will decide a match.

"I think it gets worse as you get older, because it means more," she said. "You realize you don't have that much time left, and everything becomes much more intense and concentrated and meaningful. You realize you don't have such a long run out there; you better make the best of it."

But Navratilova said she is not the only nervous superstar -- she is just the one willing to discuss her demons.

"You ask all the great performers, and they are petrified," she said. "I mean, [Barbra] Streisand doesn't even do concerts because she is so nervous. [Frank] Sinatra says he gets more nervous now than he did 30 years ago. You would think it gets easier. It doesn't. You have to think about the basics, you have to remind yourself to run and watch the ball. I was nervous my first final at Wimbledon, but it doesn't compare at all to what I have been going through the last few years."

She has performed superbly during the past few months, despite being engaged in a rancorous courtroom battle with her former companion and her former attorney. The suits and counter-suits in Texas did not stop Navratilova from reaching the U.S. Open final or tying Evert's record of 157 singles championships. She even joked about going on "20/20," sitting for one of those weep-and-tell Barbara Walters interviews and emerging as No. 1 -- in the Nielsen ratings.

"There is nothing I can do about anything when I am on the court but win the tennis match," Navratilova said. "So it is easy to say that you can only keep your troubles away for so long. But, you know, now it has been going on all year, and it is like old hat. I just get out there and play my match and have a good time."

Navratilova is playing the final notes of her career. She once talked of leaving the stage at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. But the path has been blocked by the internal politics of the International Tennis Federation. Miss one Federation Cup, and you're out of the Olympics. Still, Navratilova said she will leave the game on her terms.

Greatest ever? Perhaps. She has won on all surfaces. She has mastered the game's new technology, adapting to the powerful, space-aged rackets with her strength, speed and savvy.

She began her career beating the likes of Margaret Court and Billie Jean King, and she'll end it dueling Monica Seles, Steffi Graf and Capriati.

"Initially, my goal was to be the best of all time," Navratilova said. "Once I got beyond the No. 1, that was the first goal. But now I have been around for too long and I have too much respect for the other players to try to put people in those categories [of best ever]. And for me to be mentioned in the same breath as Suzanne Lenglen, Helen Wills, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King, I am just thrilled to be in their company. It is all subjective. I wish we could all get together and play a real tournament."

And who would win?

The question brought a smile to Navratilova's face.

"I have no idea," she said. "We would have to grow up at the same time, I think. Obviously, the athletes today are better than the athletes of yesteryear. They are bigger, stronger, faster. They have much better competition. Years ago, they didn't play as many tournaments a year. They played these exhibitions in Nice and the game has changed so much, it would be impossible for those players to compete. But if we were born in that era, then it is up for grabs."

Navratilova and the immortals. She earned her place in history. She won the titles, and she won the crowds.

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