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Navratilova Loses, Leaves Tennis Behind : Retirement: Defeat to Sabatini at Virginia Slims Championship and closing ceremony bring end to spectacular singles career.

November 16, 1994|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The spotlight is turned off but the light doesn't dim. That's the way some champions leave. There are other ways. Some limp off, some are led away in handcuffs. Some are taken away on gurneys and leave their careers in an operating room.

A few, very few, leave when their careers are at their apogee. The great athletes anticipate the downward arc, hate the idea of it and leave rather than face it.

Martina Navratilova, 38, left singles competition Tuesday night in the same way she had joined it: fighting, snarling, conjuring just how she might win this point and then the next. Tennis lost its winningest player ever, when Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina rose to her opponent's level and eliminated Navratilova, 6-4, 6-2, from the Virginia Slims Championships.

After completing play in the doubles competition, she will go into happy retirement after 22 years.

The much-anticipated match was often interrupted by spontaneous cheerleading from the crowd of 17,131 in Madison Square Garden. From them she gained approval and sustenance. The crowd did not chastise Sabatini, but was indifferent to her. Sabatini hardly noticed, such was her focus. Afterward, she was a gracious and conflicted winner.

"On the one side, I didn't want to be the one to beat her, on the other side it was a great honor to beat her," she said. "I got to know Martina off the court. I have to say that she is a great person."

The match was spectacular. Each point was fraught with import. Navratilova doggedly returned to the net even as Sabatini slid passing shots to every corner. Navratilova at the net is the purest expression of her defiance: Here, I will win.

"I got blown off the court by somebody who was playing in another zone," Navratilova said. "If I had to lose a match, I guess I want to lose to Gabriela Sabatini rather than anyone else. Because she's a good human being."

Sabatini never cracked. She appeared calm in a manner that she has only sporadically shown before. Her game was all pinpoint lobs and sweeping topspin backhands launched from a swing that began somewhere in Buenos Aires. She pleased herself.

"I have played like that in moments in the last few weeks, but I have not been as consistent," Sabatini said.

Steffi Graf defeated Brenda Schultz, 7-5, 6-3, and Jana Novotna defeated Iva Majoi, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, to advance in the $3.5 million season-ending tournament.

After the Sabatini-Navratilova match the crowd clapped rhythmically anticipating Navratilova's retirement ceremony. A rope snaked down from the Garden ceiling, and was attached to a red and yellow banner puddled on the floor. The lights dimmed. Navratilova strode into the spotlight with an armful of flowers and a box of tissues.

As the banner was hoisted it revealed itself--a field of red, within it a yellow tennis ball with the year 1994 on it, and, beneath, "Martina Navratilova" in huge white letters.

Urged on by shouts and cheers, Navratilova's banner was raised to the rafters of Madison Square Garden, placing her among the memories of the Knicks and Rangers. The first woman to be so elevated.

Then came the presents. The women's tour made Navratilova a gift of a pearl white Harley Davidson. When Navratilova caught sight of the low-slung motorcycle being wheeled into the arena, she jumped up and down like a delighted child, jumped astride it and varoom-varoomed and laughed.

Navratilova is said to have inherited her nerves and emotions from her mother, who, during the postgame ceremony, stood on her tiptoes to see over photographers. With one hand she clutched her handbag and with the other she dabbed at tears. Later, Jana Navratilova could be seen hugging any available torso.

Now that Navratilova has left, thoughts turn to what she has left behind. The legacy. She introduced weight training and vein-popping physical play to the women's tour. Her new-found strength drove a reluctant Chris Evert into a gym. For that alone, Navratilova may have contributed to the career longevity of players on the tour.

Her serve-and-volley game introduced the net to ranks of cloned baseliners who before had seen it only as an impediment to a serve. At the net, Navratilova allowed other players to see a potential weapon that offered possibility and dynamism to a game that had grown static and unyielding at the back of the court.

She exposed to the world her intense competitiveness and never apologized, thus allowing a generation of women to fight too.

In today's terms, the length of Navratilova's career is not likely to be duplicated. Few players can expect to last half as long as Navratilova.

Navratilova is excited about starting the second phase of her life even as she has described retirement as "hurtling into a question mark."

She leaves one passion and moves to others, telling the crowd, "So many friends I have here that I only have because of tennis. So I have to thank tennis for my life. Tonight is one night when I have a smile on my face and on my heart. Thank you.

"I will miss this game, but I'm ready for my new life," she said.

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