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Navratilova Remains a Big Name in Tennis

Without the Williams sisters or Davenport, WTA Championships put 47-year-old front and center.

November 07, 2003|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

As befits a tennis tournament of this stature, the two most famous Martinas in the sports world were at Staples Center on Thursday.

This event is called the Bank of America WTA Tour Championships. Or, its jazzier sound-bite slogan: Eight Women, Six Days, Three Million Dollars.

This event used to be held in New York's Madison Square Garden and was called the Chase Championships. Obviously, it takes a bank to pick up this kind of tab. After a while in New York, it created a decent buzz.

It arrived here for the first time last year, and, in typical fashion for things new and vague and not particularly sexy, Los Angeles shrugged. It opened for its second run here Wednesday night, had an announced attendance of 5,281 that looked more like 2,500 and had some good moments on the court, but also dribbled on until nearly midnight. Dodger fans in attendance started to ask around, sometime during the second of the three matches, when it would be the seventh inning.

Staples Center people have worked hard to avoid duplication of last year's attendance embarrassment, and that's why one of the Martinas, Martina Navratilova, was offered up to the media before the second night of competition.

She is smart, a good quote, has opinions that aren't tour cookie-cutter, and has the kind of name recognition that sells tickets in a town that lives by that. No matter that she doesn't play until Sunday, and then in doubles. She's a name.

Almost as interesting as what Navratilova was saying, however, was the presence of the other Martina, Martina Hingis, who was in the room and saying nothing at all.

The juxtaposition of these two, in this room, at this time, at this point in their careers, spoke volumes about a sport that continues to struggle to get its stars aligned. Both literally and figuratively.

Navratilova is Martina the Present. She is also 47 years old.

Hingis is Martina the Past. She is 23.

In a tournament that is missing the major portion of its drawing power with the absence because of injuries of the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport, the ticket-selling falls to a couple of Belgians who are great players but just building box-office appeal, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne. And to a 47-year-old doubles player.

And Hingis, a player who as recently as a year ago would have been enough to fill a major part of the marquee with her five titles in Grand Slam events and four in this season-ender, is here as a TV reporter for a European network. She struggled through all of 2002 with foot problems and finally gave up shortly after the U.S. Open, saying she wasn't sure she'd ever come back. Now, with her new TV role, it remains uncertain whether she is a bigger future threat to Venus and Serena or to Lisa Guerrero.

So, the heavy lifting fell to the elder stateswoman. Three years ago, despite being one of the greatest female champions of all-time, with 18 major singles titles and more than twice as many in doubles, Navratilova started a comeback.

At first, it didn't go well, and Thursday, she said that her lack of initial success kept her going.

"If it had been easy at first," she said, "I probably wouldn't be playing today."

She started 2003 with a new partner, Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova, an 18-year-old who was born after Navratilova had already won 11 major singles titles. They won five doubles titles this year and qualified for this event, one of four teams to do so.

"That was our goal we set in February," Navratilova said. "And it was even harder to get here because it used to be eight teams, not just four."

She said she will play one more year and probably will be tempted to play singles only on "the perfect grass at Eastbourne," an English tournament preceding Wimbledon. She will play in the Federation Cup for the United States, with Lisa Raymond, and said she will play with Raymond, rather than Kuznetsova, in Australia. It's likely the Navratilova-Raymond team will continue for the rest of the year and take a run at a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

Navratilova said there was no chance she would play on into 2005. The reason?

"Enough is enough," she said

Certainly understandable, especially when, at 47, you are still occasionally carrying an entire tour on your back.

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