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Scott Ostler

While Having Fun, Martina Worries About Youngsters

December 08, 1987|Scott Ostler

Martina Navratilova arrives today for a short stay, a one-dog night.

Because she will play an exhibition match tonight at the Forum and then fly out in the morning, Martina's L.A. entourage includes only one dog from her pack of pet pooches.

Last time Navratilova was in our city, she overdogged herself, with near-tragic consequences. Her dogtourage that time, three or four in number, was too big. One dog, named Yoni, went AWOL, leaped a fence in the Valley and disappeared.

Panic time. Reward posters went up. I don't remember exactly how the dog was found. Maybe an anonymous tipster spotted Yoni at the Polo Lounge, lapping pina coladas with Spuds McKenzie.

This time Martina is bringing only K.D., which stands for Killer Dog, which is what no visitor to Los Angeles should be without.

Martina travels the tennis world with dogs, friends, coaches, trainers and advisers, not so much out of necessity, but because she likes company. If she owned Walden Pond, she would heat the thing, crank up the barbecue and invite the gang.

That's why Navratilova is puzzled when she looks at the new warriors of women's tennis, Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini, and sees an icy aloofness.

"If I start to talk to Steffi, she'll talk, but she won't initiate any conversation at all," Navratilova says. "I don't know how much of that is shyness and how much is her father telling her she shouldn't be friendly with her competitors.

"She's not close with any of the top players, and that probably comes from her father. It's too bad. Obviously Chris (Evert) and I have demonstrated that that (friendship weakening competitive spirit) is not the case. It's a healthy competition. You don't have to hate or disdain your opponent.

"It's not like football, where you have to hit your opponent harder. I don't play Steffi, I play the balls she hits. It would be a lot more enjoyable if people got along, and I don't think I'm hard to approach.

"She's friends with some of the (lower ranked) players, and I know she's a good kid. The WTA puts out a calendar, and I was looking at it the other day. They list her favorite foods and hobbies and things, and it could've been me. We have a lot in common, but basically we don't know one another."

When it comes to conversation, Martina has better luck with K.D.

"Sabatini doesn't say much, either. Talking to her is like pulling teeth. When Sabatini and Graf play doubles, they don't say a word the whole time. Pam (Shriver, Martina's doubles partner) and I talk the whole time.

"I'd like to be friendly, because I think it's important for Chris and I to pass the torch to the younger players. We could teach them a lot, things about dealing with the media, the fans, helping promoters. They're looking out for themselves, looking at the short term, and they should be looking at the long term. You can't just think about yourself."

Maybe it's a generation gap, or maybe it's a simple matter of different personalities. Of the world's great athletes, Martina is one of the most personable, open and quick-witted. Unlike Graf, whose life is focused, laser-like, on hitting better tennis shots, Martina has always found time for friends, lovers, good food, nice cars, basketball, dogs, and even the media.

"When I first came on the tour, I was always very eager to be with the other players," she says. "I wanted to know them. I was so thrilled when others wanted to talk to me, even though I could barely speak English.

"I couldn't wait for the day when I could speak better English so I could hold conversations. I was so thrilled to be a part of it all. I don't see that much interest now."

Maybe the kids are simply too intent on dethroning Martina. Graf has already jumped ahead of Navratilova in the computer rankings. Martina wants her spot back.

"When Chris was No. 1, thinking of beating her was my way to get psyched up and motivated (in training)," Navratilova says. "But now, for me, it's more the event. I don't have problems beating Steffi. The motivation for me is to be No. 1, and Steffi happens to be in the way."

Right now, Martina handles the kids well. She is 7-3 vs. Graf, including victories this year at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Navratilova is 7-2 against Sabatini.

But they are teen-agers and Martina is 30, so you know her matches against them aren't going to get easier.

Just before Wimbledon, in fact, Martina's game was heading south. She turned 30 with a thud. She was beatable and scared.

"My physical problems became mental problems," she says. "If I didn't make the finals at Wimbledon, it would've been devastating. I was ready to give it up altogether.

"Winning Wimbledon this year was probably the biggest win of my career. I was hoping that the gods of Wimbledon would help me."

Tonight, maybe the Forum gods will give her a lift. Not that she's likely to need it, playing Lori McNeil--Jimmy Connors plays Tim Mayotte on the other half of the bill. But the Lakers are always an inspiration to Martina.

When she is playing serious pickup basketball and her team is down, Martina's rallying cry is "Here come the Lakers!" Guess who pretends to be Magic Johnson?

Navratilova has been so busy she hasn't seen the Lakers run lately. Of course, neither has Pat Riley.

Still, she hasn't lost faith in them or in herself.

"I'm certainly not over the hill," Martina says.

Let's hope, this time, we can say the same for her dog.

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