Return is doubly pleasing for Navratilova; Nine-time singles champ teams with de Swardt because she's in shape


WIMBLEDON, England - They stood on rooftops, pressed 10 deep along pavement, and peeked through wooden slats for a glimpse of a legend yesterday.

Martina Navratilova was back at Wimbledon.

Stuck on Court 18 in Wimbledon's outback instead of her customary Centre Court home, the 43-year-old Navratilova performed the old-time tennis magic for her longtime legion of fans.

She served hard, volleyed magnificently and rolled back the years during a doubles match with her new partner, Mariaan de Swardt. The pair defeated Lubomira Bacheva and Amanda Hopmans, 6-3, 6-7 (4-7), 6-3.

But the score was almost beside the point.

This was tennis history come to life, one of Wimbledon's great players enjoying an encore in the tournament's "Millennium Championships."

"I've been thinking about it a long time," Navratilova said. "Once you get out there, you bask in the applause for 30 seconds, then you have to play a match. You don't have a chance to sit and relax and enjoy it very much. Doubles moves pretty fast. You've got to get on with it."

A sport of fast serves and rising stars usually has little time for nostalgia. But exceptions are made for a player like Navratilova, a Wimbledon winner of nine singles titles, and 19 overall, one behind Billie Jean King's record 20 Wimbledon championships.

She said she didn't come here to try to grab the record. She simply came to play.

"I'll say this again, I did not come out of retirement," she said. "I just haven't played here for four years. I've been playing Team Tennis. I never said I was not going to play doubles any more, or mixed. It just so happened I got in shape."

The way she looked - and darted around the court - she appeared in better shape than most of the teens on tour. She keeps herself in shape skiing, snowboarding, playing basketball and playing hockey.

Tennis' great left-hander is a right wing on the ice.

"Hockey is a great crossover sport," she said.

But what she does best is play and talk about tennis.

"Oh, man, it's so easy to talk about it," said Navratilova, who is part of the TNT broadcast team. "Piece of cake. I never miss a shot up in the booth."

She rarely misses one on court. Watching Navratilova direct her partner on the grass was like sitting in on a doubles clinic. She seemed to know instinctively where all the shots were headed.

"I know why she has been sucha great champion, why her record is the way it is, because of her incredible love for the game and effort she puts into every practice, everything she does," de Swardt said.

The South African said it can be tough to team with a legend.

"I've been shaking in my boots," de Swardt said. "In the beginning I was scared to make any errors. I just kind of accepted, I'm going to screw up a lot, and hopefully she won't get too mad."

Navratilova was the picture of contentment, back in her element, the last great serve-and-volley player the women's game has ever produced.

"Nobody seems to be able to handle the first volley," she said. "That's why they're not coming in."

Navratilova may also be one of the last of a breed among modern sports stars - a champion with an opinion that even matters.

"We don't see the guys posing with just the flag in front of their body, the important parts," she said on past attempts to sell the women's game with sex. "You know, we have a great product out there. We have the personalities, we have the games, we have the athletes. We can push that plenty."

But what the women's game really lacks is a star of Navratilova's stature.

That's why this is a Wimbledon to savor.

The legend is back.

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