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Ancient Olympian

Navratilova, 47, chases one of few tennis prizes she lacks: a gold medal

August 07, 2004|Lauren Peterson | Times Staff Writer

Martina Navratilova, winner of a record-tying 20 Wimbledon titles, 18 Grand Slam singles championships and more than $21 million in prize money, is in pursuit of an Olympic gold medal, one of the few achievements to elude her in a tennis career that has spanned parts of four decades.

The chase will take Navratilova to Athens next week for the opening ceremony Friday and then doubles competition, which takes place Aug. 15-22.

Navratilova, at 47 the oldest woman in the sport's professional ranks, has said she planned to end her career after the U.S. Open, scheduled Aug. 30-Sept. 12 in New York.

But first, there is at least one more major event she'd like to win.

"I think most tennis players would pick winning Wimbledon over Olympic gold," she said. "But that doesn't make it any smaller. It's like a fifth Slam, really."

Despite all her years in tennis, Navratilova will be competing in the Olympics for the first time.

Although she came out of retirement in 2000 after a five-year absence, she was playing sporadically, and not playing well enough to earn a spot on the U.S. team that went to Sydney that year. She missed the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta while in retirement. She was not selected to the '92 team because she did not compete in required Federation Cup qualifying matches.

In 1988 -- the first Olympics that tennis was a full-fledged sport after a 64-year absence -- Navratilova opted not to compete because of a busy schedule and burnout.

She has managed to avoid both of those this time, not an easy task in a summer that has required crowding another tournament with a singles draw of 64 and a doubles draw of 32 into a schedule that was already packed and not conducive to recovering from injuries.

Navratilova, who will play doubles with Lisa Raymond, also will be joined on the U.S. women's team by Venus and Serena Williams, who are scheduled to play singles and doubles, and singles players Jennifer Capriati and Chanda Rubin. Both Williams sisters and Capriati, however, withdrew from the Acura Classic in late July because of injuries. Capriati has since returned, playing in the Rogers Cup in Montreal this week, while the Williamses remained sidelined for precautionary reasons, according to U.S. Olympic Coach Zina Garrison.

"Women's tennis, basically, has been all about health," Garrison said. "If they're healthy and they're enthusiastic, we should be fine. They're still some of the best players in the world, so they have a good chance."

The U.S. men's team includes Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, Vince Spadea and Taylor Dent playing singles, and twins Mike and Bob Bryan competing in doubles along with Roddick and Fish. Fish and Dent also pulled out of recent ATP tour events. Fish retired from a match against Andre Agassi in Cincinnati on Monday because of back spasms. Dent played Tuesday, but he withdrew from a tournament in Toronto because of a calf injury.

"It's a difficult schedule, and you can't play it all," said Navratilova, who admits she benefits from focusing primarily on doubles.

Players typically compete in the French Open in late May, Wimbledon in June, and two or three hard-court tournaments in July and August as warm-ups for the U.S. Open. In between all of that and the Olympics, the men compete in Davis Cup matches, the women in Fed Cup play.

"It makes for a difficult summer. If I was playing singles, I don't know," Navratilova said. "I'm sure I would try to fit it in on the schedule, but then you don't play some tournaments here. Something's got to give, or else it's going to be you."

None of the injured have begged off of the Olympic teams so far, and U.S. men's Coach Patrick McEnroe doesn't expect it to happen.

"It's a once-in-four-years type of deal. You suck it up and you deal with it," he said. "Is it ideal? No. But if you've played a lot of tennis, you don't really have to practice that much, so I think it's doable. You wouldn't want to do this every year, but it's once every four years, and it is the Olympics."

Roddick plans to immerse himself in the experience. After eight days of Olympic singles and doubles play, he'll have only eight days to recover before beginning defense of his U.S. Open title.

"It's something I've dreamed about forever and a day," he said "It's definitely right up there with the Slams for me this year. Obviously my ultimate goal in tennis was the U.S. Open, but I want that gold medal, and I would definitely cherish it just as much as a Grand Slam title."

So would Navratilova.

"It's a huge athletic event," she said of the Olympics. "And now that tennis is a part of it, it's another title to win."

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