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Martinez in, Martina's out


WIMBLEDON, England -- Conchita Martinez grew up in Monzon, Spain. The daughter of a factory worker, she spent her days hitting tennis balls against the factory wall on a court her father, Cecilio, made for her.

As she hit those balls, one harder than the next, she dreamed of her tennis idol. And the thoughts were so constant that she gave the wall a name -- Martina.

Yesterday, when Martina Navratilova played her last Wimbledon, was Conchita Martinez across the net who ushered her idol off the Centre Court grass, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

"It was very hard out there because I knew she was so excited to [have a chance to] win the 10th Wimbledon," Martinez said. "It's tough, you know. She did great to get into the final and play so relaxed, and I am really sorry to beat her. But I'm really pleased that I did."

It was an overcast afternoon, but a brilliant moment for women's tennis.

Navratilova closed a career at age 37. She eventually bowed to young, strong legs and ripping cross-court backhand shots.

But along the way, despite two "terrible" double faults on break points in the third set of her final match, she showed flashes of the grass-court game that had brought her to her first women's final on Centre Court in 1978 and had brought her back for one last try this year.

It was her first return to the final since she last won here in 1990.

"You know, I loved Wimbledon from the first time I knew about it," Navratilova said. "For me, it's been like a love affair that grows. It's like a relationship where you love that person more and more the longer the relationship goes, and it gets deeper.

"So that's been the same thing pretty much here, between me and Wimbledon, and it's been reciprocated. I feel this place in my bones. I feel all those champions out there, dead and alive, when I'm out there.

"There's no place like it."

And, of course, there has been no one like her.

This was her 12th final in 22 years: That's 120 matches won and 13 lost. There have been 18 Grand Slam titles here in singles (nine), doubles (seven) and mixed doubles (two).

And yesterday, she was sad to lose, but not unhappy.

When her backhand passing shot went wide, her shoulders slumped for only a moment, before she ran to the net to hug Martinez.

They rolled out the green carpet then for the Duke and Duchess of Kent, who presented the runner-up plate to Navratilova, and in the old champion's excitement, she momentarily forgot to curtsy.

But then she did, and the Duchess put her arms around her and asked her to reconsider and come back for another year.

lTC Navratilova said no.

"When I said, 'No, but I'll probably be around,' she said, 'Then we'll definitely have tea,' " Navratilova said. "We've been trying to have tea for the last 10 years."

And then it was time for the new champion, an unlikely champion and the first Wimbledon champion from Spain.

Martinez took the Champions Gold Plate in her hands and didn't know what to do.

Martinez is the No. 3 player in the world, but a woman not known for her grass-court play. Her baseline skills combined with a tricky serve and a slice forehand are considered strengths on clay.

But at Wimbledon, she was a 33-to-1 shot. Her backhand, her lack of net play, her lack of experience on the surface the Spanish have always considered "good only for cows" were not supposed to take her to a Wimbledon crown.

No one had told her what to do if she won the championship.

"Thank goodness referee Alan Mills gave direction on court," said Martinez, 22. "And Martina, she gave me a little push to go to the photographers. There were so many of them, I didn't know where to go."

A year ago, the scene had included a portrait of runner-up Jana Novotna collapsing into the arms of the Duchess in defeat, after her loss to Steffi Graf.

This year, Martinez, gold plate in hand, walked over to Navratilova, who put her arm around her, and the new champion buried her head on the shoulder of her idol.

"She was thrilled and so excited," Navratilova said. "For that moment, it was like her feet were sinking lower and lower and I had to hold her up.

"And I was excited for her. I remember how the first one felt. The first one is the best. It's such a pure feeling, that first time. I hope she can feel it again."

Martinez won 76 percent of her volleys in this tournament, and women such as Lindsay Davenport and Lori McNeil went to her backhand so often that by the time she saw Navratilova yesterday, the backhand was razor sharp.

She used it to break Navratilova in game seven of the first set, to take the one-set lead. And she used it in the third, whenever she needed it, from wherever she needed it. Martinez could make a backhand cross-court passing shot hit the line every time.

"Today, she passed me as well as anybody every has, even Monica Seles, because she passed me well from both sides, but actually better from the backhand," Navratilova said. "It was amazing that she could hit those kind of shots on grass."

As the crowd stood cheering for the new winner and the old, Martinez began the traditional champion's walk around Centre Court, and Navratilova, holding her runner's up plate in one hand, while waving and blowing kisses with the other, took a stroll of her own for one final time.

And then, as they were about to leave the court, Navratilova stooped to pluck a blade of grass.

"I'll just keep it," she said. "I've had a great run, but I've had enough, and I think this is a nice way to end it."

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