Navratilova overcomes opponent's grin Rebounds to beat Stafford, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- Amazing the things that bother Martina Navratilova.

At Wimbledon, it was Monica Seles' grunt. And last night at the U.S. Open it was Shaun Stafford's smile.


"I'm fighting for my life, and she's laughing," Navratilova said. "It's tough when you get out there. She laughed, whether she won or lost a point."

Fortunately, for Navratilova, she got in the last smile, beating Stafford, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5, in the first round of the U.S. Open.


The Navratilova-Stafford match provided a strange ending to a dramatic day of women's tennis.

No. 6 Jennifer Capriati, suddenly everyone's favorite to win the Open, showed up armed with her Olympic gold medal, lost five of the first six games, before putting away Nicole Muns-Jagerman, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2.

"It's like the story of my life, go down 1-5 and come back," Capriati said. "I just got more intense. Tried to focus a little better."

Ann Grossman, putting the pieces of her career back together after the death of her father, upset No. 8 Conchita Martinez, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4. She credits letters written to her by her father, Bill, who dTC died a year ago, with getting her mind refocused on tennis.

"My father taught me ever since I was 4," Grossman said. "I grew up on a farm and everything was a struggle and I think that tennis has to be a struggle."

But it can be fun, too.

Just ask Sabine Appelmans, who defeated No. 11 Anke Huber, 6-3, 6-4. Or No. 4 Gabriela Sabatini, the only top seed who advanced easily, with a 6-1, 6-2 winner over Linda Harvey-Wild.

But you want trouble? Look at Navratilova. The woman has been in 31 Grand Slam finals, clung to the No. 3 spot in the world, refashioned her game again this summer, and she nearly went to pieces in a match that should have been routine.


She was up 5-1 in the third. She served for the match. Once. Twice. Oops. Suddenly, it's 5-5 and the sell-out crowd at the stadium court was roaring for Stafford, a 23-year-old qualifier.

"It was tough," Navratilova said. "I didn't expect them to believe that much. She came from behind. It was a great comeback and the crowd had every right to be excited about it. But it was a jolt after last year, after having them in the palm of my hand. And now, they were the other way. You know, had it been Jimmy [Connors] against a qualifier, they would be going nuts for him. I guess I am not old enough for that."

Navratilova didn't buckle under the stress, though. She broke Stafford's serve, and finally, served out the match.

"The stakes are different," Navratilova said. "The pressure is all out there and I felt it. And when push came to shove at 5-all, I said, 'OK, enough is enough.' And I really got pumped up and pulled it out. You don't want to exert all that emotional energy in the first round. You think, two weeks, but hey, if you don't want that first match, you forget the rest."

Give Stafford credit. The smile wasn't a fake. When the match ended, her face lighted up with a grin.

"I don't think I've ever had so much fun," she said. "Go in there. You're an American. Fifteen, twenty thousand people are screaming. You'll have a great time playing the match."


It was Stafford's third Grand Slam appearance in a stadium. Pre viously, she had lost to Steffi Graf and Conchita Martinez at the French Open. Both times, Stafford said, "she froze like a dog. This time, I didn't want that to happen."

She just laughed. And laughed. And kept laughing so hard during the post-match news conference that she had to rest her head on a table.

"That was such a rush in the stadium," Stafford said. "Awesome. I wish I knew what that was like all the time."

For one night, tennis was fun. Nice. Very nice.