WIMBLEDON, England - They were like a couple of aging troubadours, back on the big stage for one last show, and they were so good yesterday it turned a wet opening day at Wimbledon into an afternoon dripping with nostalgia and sunny memories.
First, Martina Navratilova, 47 and absent from the singles draw at Wimbledon for 10 years, routed Colom bian Catalina Castano, 6-0, 6-1, before holding yet another of her interminably long but always entertaining news conferences.
Then, Goran Ivanisevic, 32, won his first grass court match since he came out of nowhere, unseeded, to win the 2001 Wimbledon for his first and only Grand Slam title.
They were packed into Centre Court for Ivanisevic's 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 win over No. 31-seed Mikhail Youzhny and, though there were plenty of seats on Court 1 for Navratilova's win, she was no less adored.
Fans came, first and foremost, to see these grand old players one more time in their Wimbledon whites. But they stayed for the tennis and left happy when both won.
As is her custom, Navratilova didn't just walk onto the court. She swaggered, right on 12 noon, then, interrupted once by a 48-minute rain delay, easily defeated Castano, 24, who has now played four grass court matches in her career without winning a set.
It was Navratilova's 349th grass court match and she's won 312 of them - 63 en route to a record nine Wimbledon singles titles.
"I'm sure some people are asking, "Why is she doing this?" ' said Navratilova. But, she added, "Most people are saying, "It's great that she's doing it." That's for me to know why I'm doing it. I've been saying all along that playing tennis is for the fans, not for anyone else. It's a game. People forget that. People take it too seriously. I never have and I never will."
Later, the antic and purely spontaneous Ivanisevic, who has in the past expressed disdain for women's tennis, called Navratilova "one of the few woman tennis players I respect. I cannot compare myself to her." he said. 'She is another level. She is from another planet. She's 48, 50, I don't know. How many Grand Slams? How many tournaments? More than a hundred."
The once-anointed Croatian Sensation, only 2-9 for the season coming to Wimbledon, played surprisingly well against his Russian opponent, who has a good record on grass. He wasn't broken in 15 service games, though he admitted that because of his chronically injured left shoulder he isn't able to plaster his first serve more than 130 mph.
If it's Navratilova's candor and confrontational personality that has won her respect and admiration, it is Ivanisevic's wildly entertaining personality that has endeared him.
"When I'm 47, probably I'm going to be in a wheelchair." he said. But, on this day he was also serious and emotional. 'Beautiful. It's the first time actually I walk on Centre Court first round for my whole Wimbledon career. Grass is very green. Unbelievable feeling. You cannot play bad on this court. You can be nervous, but bad? Is impossible to play bad.
"I'm going to be sad when I have to lose one of these matches. But the crowd is great. English crowd really have good relationship, which is one of the reasons I came back. I wanted to play one more Wimbledon. I want to retire here."
Not until after at least one more round, he doesn't. He"ll face Filippo Volandri of Italy, No. 51 in the rankings, tomorrow. Navratilova will play the 19-year-old Argentine Giselo Dulko, who beat her badly in the first round at the French Open.
It might be Navratilova's final singles match at Wimbledon, though no one is taking that bet - not with the obstinate Navratilova's determination to continue her own personal Wimbledon history. She can even remember her first Wimbledon match, in 1973, against Britain's Christine Janes.
"I had on a tight dress." Navratilova recalled. "Made the mistake of wearing a dress for the first time for the match. I was a bit chubby, as you know, and the dress was not the right size. It was itchy, so I was just glad to get off the court. Never wore that dress again."
Navratilova won that match, 6-1, 6-4 - her first match ever on grass. "It felt like home right away." she said of Wimbledon's famous surface.
Thirty-one years later for Navratilova and 16 years after Ivanisevic first played at Wimbledon, it still feels like home to both.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.