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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

Chris Evert is 39 and has two young sons. She also lives in Aspen, not too far from Navratilova, which probably isn't that surprising because their proximity to one another was the major story line of women's tennis for 16 years, 1973-88.

They played 80 matches, 189 sets and 12 tiebreakers. Navratilova held a 43-37 advantage and won 13 consecutive times in a span of nearly three years from 1982 to '85. If anyone fully appreciates how dominant Navratilova was in that period, it is Evert.

"She won the match before I stepped on the court," Evert says. "I knew I couldn't win. Mentally, she had already won. And I was No. 2 in the world . . . imagine what she was doing to the other players. She was invincible."

Navratilova can't recall what invincibility felt like.

"It's so long ago, I don't remember," she says. "But I knew I was going to win. That takes a lot of pressure off. I knew even if I didn't play my average, I would still win. I could do that even against the top players. I was playing so well, my average was that much better than anybody else. It's like you forget how to lose."

Navratilova was 89-14 in 1981, 90-3 in 1982, 86-1 in 1983 and 78-2 in 1984, the year her 74-match winning streak finally ended with a loss to Helena Sukova that December in the semifinals of the Australian Open. She won 15 tournaments in 1982, 16 in 1983 and 13 in 1984 on her way to a record 167 titles.

Evert was not surprised by Navratilova's Wimbledon farewell, not after Steffi Graf was defeated in the first round. And even though Navratilova's quest for a 10th Wimbledon singles title fell short, Evert is not convinced it was all that bad a thing.

"I think that was the signal, 'Martina, it's time to stop,' " says Evert, who retired in 1989. "If she had won, in her mind, she might have made the wrong decision about not playing. Let's face it, you always want to go out on top, but (John) McEnroe, myself, Jimmy (Connors), Billie Jean (King), we all didn't do it.

"So losing at Wimbledon was a blessing in disguise for Martina. I think she's more comfortable now with her retirement. Billie Jean was playing on and losing to people she shouldn't have and she didn't care. But Martina, she's going out on top, and that's important to a player."

Navratilova and Evert have grown closer over the years, but there was a time when they probably would have preferred to jam a racket down the other's throat. They didn't have much to do with one another, except on court. It was the women's tennis answer to Bjorn Borg-McEnroe as tennis shot to greater popularity, fueled by the spectacle of rivalries.

"People love rivalries," Navratilova says. "You've got to have rivalries, and we certainly had it going. Most of the times, one of us was No. 1 and the other was No. 2. It's hard to have a rivalry between No. 1 and No. 10 or No. 3 and No. 8 or whatever."

Navratilova says the reason she didn't get along with Evert was because she was being coached that way.

Nancy Lieberman, who had been a noted college basketball player at Old Dominion, began working with Navratilova to toughen her mental approach and to strengthen her body.

"There were a couple of years when I was beating Chris and Nancy was sort of saying, 'You've got to hate your opponents,' " Navratilova says. "So I got a little bit carried away with the killer instinct."

Evert says the first match that Lieberman saw Navratilova play was in Amelia Island, Fla., in 1981, the final of the Women's International Tennis Assn. championships. Evert won, 6-0, 6-0. At that point in the series, Evert had won 27 of the first 40 matches against Navratilova. After that match, Navratilova won 30 of the next 40.

"That was the turning point," Evert says. "I did her a favor beating her, 6-0, 6-0. Nancy was asking her how humiliating it was and that was the beginning of the new Martina, the whole physical edge."

Lieberman, now Lieberman-Cline, lives in Dallas with her husband and newborn son. She has a successful career as a television commentator for basketball games and runs a sports marketing company. She also has a softer definition of the killer instinct she instilled in Navratilova, with whom she was affiliated in the early 1980s.

"I just made her more competitive," Lieberman-Cline says. "For a time, she needed to go totally opposite to what she was because she was so passive. Mentally, she was competitive, but she had a lot of feeling for the people she was playing.

"The example was Chris--so mentally strong and dominating. Martina went out there to play tennis, and Chris went out there for war. In 1981, Martina needed to be pushed."

How a person is perceived is not in the control of that person. Navratilova is well aware of this truth, but she believes she is being perceived quite differently than in years past. She also believes how she is viewed relative to Evert is not as it once was.

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