NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- The beginning of the end came a few minutes after the match, when she received a bouquet of roses, a runner-up check and a standing ovation.
On and on the Madison Square Garden crowd of 16,199 roared. A minute passed, and then two, until all Martina Navratilova could do was take off her glasses and wipe away tears.
She had lost to Monica Seles, 7-5, 6-3, 6-1, yesterday in the final of the $3 million Virginia Slims Championships. And now, at 36, after two decades on the tour, Navratilova was setting the stage for one last, long goodbye.
"I don't think I'll have too many moments like this," she told the crowd. "I do think my time has come. I think next year will be my last playing singles."
The declaration was as close as Navratilova has come to a retirement announcement.
Navratilova came to the women's pro tour during the reign of Billie Jean King and likely will leave it during the era of Seles. She outlasted Chris Evert and Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger and a score of contenders and pretenders for No. 1. She won 161 tournament titles and said she planned to win a few more before her career is through.
But finally, inevitably, Navratilova has run into a teen-ager she no longer can beat consistently.
"This is probably as well as I have played and still gotten beaten in straight sets," Navratilova said. "Had Monica played like this 10 years ago, when I was dominating, she still would have beaten me."
Clearly, women's tennis is now dominated by Seles, who travels the world winning tournaments, collecting checks and bashing all opponents with a two-handed baseline assault.
Not yet 19, completing her fourth season on the tour, Seles finished her second straight year as the women's No. 1 player.
Her third straight Slims triumph gave her 10 tournament victories, including the Australian, French and U.S. open titles, and a 70-5 match record for the year.
And then there is the cash.
Seles took away $250,000 for finishing first, another $500,000 in tour bonus pool money and broke her record for tennis prize money, finishing 1992 with $2.6 million.
The frightening part is that Seles said she is going to get better.
"I do hope this is not the highlight of my career," Seles said. "I have got a lot to learn. I know things won't go as well as the last few years."
Seles envisions playing a more varied style.
"I hope I can do it by the time I'm 23 or 24," she said. "I'd like a great serve. Coming in more after the serve. I want to be a lot better on the ground strokes. I want to hit more one-handed."
What Seles wants, she usually gets. Through persistence and sheer excellence, she is beginning to craft a new image -- at least on the tennis tour. But there are those outside tennis who still know her simply as the athlete who grunts.
The latest "Saturday Night Live" featured the skit, "At Home With Monica." It was the usual stuff. Monica opens the refrigerator. And grunts. Monica lifts up a chicken drumstick. And grunts.
"I didn't see it," Seles said. "What did they do? Probably the grunting. It's all in good humor. I'm sure my friends saw it. I'm sure they taped it. At least, I hope they did."
It's clear, however, that Seles has earned the respect of her foes. To hear Navratilova speak yesterday, you could sense that one champion was passing the torch to the next one.
"It's just phenomenal how close she hits the ball to the sideline," Navratilova said. "No one can do that -- except Jimmy Connors. And thank God we don't have to play him all the time."
Seles is tough enough.
Navratilova had two set points in the first set, couldn't convert them and then had to withstand Seles' sharply angled attacks. ** The only reason the match lasted three sets and 96 minutes was the format. Only the Slims features a best-of-five women's final.
"It was pretty close for a while . . . like a set," Navratilova said. "Then she ran me over like a Mack truck. Monica is like the big, bad wolf. You give her an inch, she blows the door right open."
Soon, Navratilova won't have to worry about Seles or any other teen-ager with a racket and an attitude. She doesn't plan a farewell tour, and if you keep asking her about retirement, she'll hedge and say, "I'll be around for doubles."
"The way I play the game," she said, "you have to have a lot of heart and take risks."
Now, Navratilova is talking about the biggest risk of all: the end.