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Grass greener on her side of court Navratilova's titles set her apart from Lendle at Wimbledon


WIMBLEDON, England -- Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl have watched their careers follow remarkably similar paths. Both defected from Czechoslovakia as scared teen-agers, seeking tennis courts paved with gold in the United States. Both became the most dominant and wealthiest players on their sides of the sport. Both fought to shed unpopular images.

But their paths took sharply disparate turns at the All England Club. It was on the grass courts of Wimbledon, in the sport's most prestigious tournament, that Navratilova found history and Lendl found misery, where Navratilova has set a record for championships and Lendl has set one for frustrations.

"I think the Centre Court has the most personality, and the most charm, spirit, everything," Navratilova, 35, said last week. "It's all here. At the U.S. Open stadium, the crowd really gets really crazy and rowdy, and I love being there, but the stadium [at Wimbledon], whether it's full or empty, gives you chills."

Said Lendl, 32: "I think just the combination of everything -- the royalty, the grass, the tradition of the championship -- it's different. They have a lot of traditions which I thought were, quite honestly, a little silly. But now I enjoy them. It's a lot of fun to be playing a match and then realize that at 4 o'clock everybody will get up to have a cup of tea. I think you just have to experience it enough to enjoy it or appreciate it."

That sense of enjoyment and appreciation runs both ways now. The more that Navratilova and, only recently, Lendl, have grown to enjoy Wimbledon, the more the fans here have learned to appreciate them. It is why they, along with John McEnroe, have become the sentimental favorites as the 106th Wimbledon enters the second week today.

That Navratilova and Lendl are still around is a bit surprising, considering the problems each has had in the past year. Two weeks ago, Navratilova lost in the early rounds at Eastbourne, a grass-court tournament she had won eight of the previous nine years. Lendl's ranking has dropped out of the top 10 -- he is No. 11 -- for the first time in 13 years.

But here they are in the fourth round, struggling but surviving, hoping they are still fit enough and fast enough and unforgiving enough to carve out one final Grand Slam victory in their magnificent careers. For Navratilova, a championship at Wimbledon would add to her record of nine. For Lendl, a championship would be his first, perhaps capping a career that hasn't exactly been splendor on the grass.

"I'd like to prove a lot of people wrong," said Navratilova, who is seeded fourth and will meet Yayuk Basuki of Indonesia on Centre Court today. "I'm having a blast, and I'm still capable of winning. So my goal is to stay out here so long as I enjoy it and so long as I don't panic too much out there and the good weighs against the bad."

Lendl, who is seeded 10th and will play heavy-hitting, eighth-seeded Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia this afternoon, said that even if he turns his game around, it doesn't necessarily mean he'll win. "It depends on when it starts happening," he said. "If it doesn't happen this week or next week, I don't have a chance. I'll be beaten by someone."

Navratilova and Lendl have come close to losing at least once already. In her second-round match against Kimberly Po, Navratilova won the first set, lost the second and needed some divine intervention -- fading daylight and an agreeable chair umpire -- to come back the next day. She won the third set, 6-0. In his third-round match against Sandon Stolle, Lendl came back from a two-sets-to-one deficit to win in five.

Though both seem to be sound, they have been unable to maintain their once machine-like physical conditioning. Navratilova has been plagued by knee problems for several years, and Lendl sustained a serious hand injury last year that forced him to withdraw from the French Open and seemed to sap the power from his strong right arm. It has made them look vulnerable to their opponents.

"Very beatable," Ivanisevic said, when asked last week about playing Lendl.

"If you're not playing well, obviously they're going to have a little less respect," said Lendl, who hasn't won a tournament since a victory at a U.S. Open tune-up event last summer on Long Island.

Few expect Navratilova or Lendl to win this year's Wimbledon, and that has allowed them to come in feeling less pressure than at any time in the past. To understand how far out of the spotlight they have fallen, just look at the local tabloids. Both have been virtually ignored.

Of the two, Navratilova probably has the better chance to make it through at least until the semifinals, when she likely would have to play a top-ranked, top-seeded steamroller named Monica Seles. While Navratilova already has picked defending champion Steffi Graf to repeat, some are not discounting the chances of the sport's all-time leading tournament winner.

But with reservations.

"It's in her head," Pam Shriver said of Navratilova, her longtime friend and doubles partner. "She still can play so many shots, but she doesn't have that belief in her head yet. I was telling her during our doubles match, 'Be a leader out there,' and she started playing more aggressively. She can win, but she has to believe she can win. If she can win nine, she can win 10."

Navratilova and Lendl both embraced the lifestyles of the rich and famous early on: Navratilova with her jewelry and a ski chalet in Aspen; Lendl with his cars, his passion for golf and his mansion in tony Greenwich, Conn.

But Wimbledon isn't the only place where their paths have diverged. After admitting to being a lesbian several years ago, Navratilova has played out her personal life in tabloid form, with several well-publicized relationships. Lendl took some heat initially after marrying a woman several years younger than he, but has since settled down with a family that includes three children. His nickname now on the tour is "RoboPop."

And while Navratilova went after her U.S. citizenship as if she were going after a volley -- receiving it in 1981 -- Lendl took a more casual approach. He will become a citizen when he gets back home to sign the final papers.

"My family is No. 1, there's no question about it," said Lendl. "Then there are a lot of things that are important, but I think your job is always important, too. Whether you do it well or not, that's another question, but I think family should be No. 1 for anyone."

"I'm having a great time practicing," said Navratilova. "I think there are no expectations from anybody but myself, so right now the goal is just to do as well as I possibly can. I'm not looking beyond that."

Neither is looking past today.

For Navratilova and Lendl, it just doesn't work like that anymore.

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