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VOLLEY OF THE DOLLS

But not for long. This week Spain's Wantcha Sandwich for Carryout--or whatever her name is--and the mechanical German Steffi Graf will be dueling for the top spot in women's tennis, but how many people really care, outside of Wimbledon's strawberries-and-cream set? Who even remembers that Monica Seles, once the world's undisputed number one, has not set foot on a court since being stabbed in the back by a madman almost two years ago? Who among the faltering Lori McNeils and Daddy-plagued Mary Pierces and leg-weary Gabriela Sabatinis can step up to fill Navratilova's sneakers? Who among the--oh, better not name those names--can now push away from the buffet table long enough to lay a good thrashing on Conchita Martinez or Jana Novotna? Who can replace the queen of the courts?

The answer is simple: no one. What Navratilova did, in the course of twenty scintillating years at the top, was give the women's game power, passion and intelligence. And those qualities didn't simply fly off the strings of her high-tech racket: They came from the heart. In the history of women's tennis, only Billie Jean King approached Navratilova in terms of talent and mythology--and Billie Jean is even longer gone.

Luckily, Martina does not leave us completely. In fact, an equal contribution could be ahead of her. This year she campaigned for and won the presidency of the WTA Tour Players Association (defeating her old doubles-mate, Shriver). Past WTA heads quite often showed all the clout and vision of Bud Selig taking his afternoon nap. But Martina says she will face the grave problems in women's tennis head-on--the ruined childhoods and quick-buck opportunists, the game's lost sponsors and tarnished image. In September, for instance, the International Management Group, which already has a big stake in the sport, was all set to launch a new women's tour but balked one day before the scheduled press conference. With Navratilova at the helm, perhaps that won't happen next time.

While we wait, the assault of the raw teenagers continues apace. One of them, America's Venus Williams, emulates Navratilova's attacking style. Another, Switzerland's Martina Hingus, was named for her. But it is unlikely we shall see anything quite like this great champion again. If that proves to be the death knell for women's tennis, the game can't say she didn't warn it--with her fierce play, her pluck and her words. In all aspects, she is the standard against which all players must now be measured. The Jennifer Capriatis of the world barely reach her knee.

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