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Jumping Into Retirement : Martina Navratilova Will Go Out at the End of the Year Still Near the Top of the Hill, but It Has Been Quite a Climb

July 31, 1994|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We are at 35,000 feet above the Rocky Mountains and Martina Navratilova says what she really wants to do is jump out of an aircraft. This is not what you expect to hear, so you quickly look around to check where the cabin doors are.

Martina does not stir in her black, lace-up boots. She sits calmly in her seat, expertly peeling a mango. Her miniature fox terrier, known as K.D. (Killer Dog) and possibly the most disagreeable canine in tennis, rests at her side under a small cloud of a pillow.

As it turns out, the craft from which Martina says she wants to jump is a helicopter.

"I have no plans for next year," she says, "except helicopter skiing."

This activity features a person in skis jumping out of a helicopter at the top of a mountain and skiing down very fast. It is regarded as fun by many, including a 37-year-old would-be helicopter skier named Navratilova, who is also the greatest women's tennis player of all time. Watch that first step.

It seems pretty clear that at this point in her life, Navratilova's focus has shifted to what will be her last step.

The end is in sight already for Navratilova, whose 22-year career in tennis will end when she hits her last ball in her last match in her last tournament in November at Madison Square Garden in the Virginia Slims Championships.

Until then, we have the Martina Farewell Tour, a yearlong event that so far has included unexpected success on the grass courts of Wimbledon and next week will feature her last tournament in Los Angeles, this one to be played out on the green-painted hard courts of the Manhattan Country Club in the Virginia Slims of L.A.

For the woman who has won more tennis tournaments than anyone, who has 18 Grand Slam singles titles, who has won nearly $20 million in prize money, who has won at least two tournaments a year for the last 19 years, who has been ranked in the top five for the last 20 years . . . well, let's simply say that after 22 years of tennis, helicopter skiing is looking pretty good right now.

And how will women's tennis fare in the post-Navratilova era? If a 37-year-old Navratilova can be ranked No. 4 and still make the final at Wimbledon, that indicates her departure might create a void as big as Centre Court. She's not going to change her mind, by the way, and stay.

"I think it's the right time for me to leave," Navratilova says. "If it's not the right time for the game, then I say tough luck. I gave it about 10 more years than it had the right to expect.

"I don't feel like I would be contributing much anyway next year because my heart's not in it. I wouldn't be doing anybody any good."

So here's the plan.

She is playing six or seven more tournaments, but maybe not the U.S. Open, to which she isn't committed yet, but certainly the Virginia Slims Championships. That's it for tennis.

Then, by December, Navratilova's house will finally be completed on her 100-acre spread in Aspen, Colo. She can move out of the barn in which she is staying now and return sole custody of it to her three horses.

When she gets to her bedroom, she can pick up her jewelry pouch from the dresser and pull out the plug of grass she removed from Centre Court on her final visit, right after she lost to Conchita Martinez four weeks ago.

Then in January, it's off to Canada and that skiing trip with the airborne ski lift. After that, who knows? At the very least, Navratilova has a lot to think about, if she ever feels comfortable doing it.

"The years all start running together," she says. "I can't remember what year . . . I remember the decade, I can't remember the year. That just means that I've been playing a long time. It's all a blink when you think about it, the last 20 years.

"Friends say, 'Oh, don't retire, don't retire,' and you know I'm not retiring, I'm just not going to play tennis. I'm going to have a blast."

But for now, the blast is going to have to wait.

TELL US, MARTINA, IS IT NOISY IN BOISE?

The day before Navratilova and her New Jersey Stars teammates show up in Boise, Ida., to play a TeamTennis match, Rick and Jon Leach of the Idaho Sneakers go kayaking on the Payette River.

"It was cool," Jon Leach says.

Maybe, but as experiences go, it can't compare with Rick Leach's when he asks for one of Navratilova's rackets after the match and she gives him one.

"It's going in the trophy case," he says.

Navratilova has a contract to play one more year of World TeamTennis, a struggling, monthlong exhibition series featuring mostly minor players in mostly minor cities. The highest-ranking men's player is San Antonio's Christo van Rensburg, who is No. 147 on the ATP Tour.

In these bush leagues, Navratilova is unquestionably the star. She is introduced by the public-address announcer as "the greatest lady in tennis," and the nearly 3,000 in the stands seem to agree. Hundreds form lines at the exits after the match hoping for an autograph while Navratilova holds an impromptu news conference on court.

Somebody asks about her greatest rivalry.

Easy question.

*

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