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VOLLEY OF THE DOLLS

Last week the only news trickling out of the moribund women's tennis tour concerned the return of Jennifer Capriati, the eighteen-year-old burnout who is justifiably more famous for her adolescent misdeeds than for any real prowess on the court. Before her mug shots were plastered all over the front pages six months ago, Capriati managed to defeat a few ranked opponents--under the stern eye of her backstage father. But she was never the world-beater people expected. Last Wednesday Jenny's comeback was spoiled in the first round at Philadelphia, when she got knocked off by Anke Huber.

Unfamiliar with Anke Huber? You're not alone. Sounds like a German motorcycle, but this is actually the world's 17th-ranked women's tennis player. Of course, there are some other top-25ers that nobody but the sport's designated loudmouth, Bud Collins, has ever heard of. Take Ines Gorrochategui--bet you didn't know she's ranked 20th. How about Sabine Hack? Fifteenth. Not to be confused with Sabine Appelmans. She's 22nd, one slot behind Iva Majoli and three jumps ahead of the name on all the world's lips--Naoko Sawamatsu.

Wondering if any of these people could win a challenge set over at Washington Park? How do the poor devils who write about tennis spell the names right twice in a row? Or keep the police reports straight?

What a mess. But things could get even worse. Already down love-40 in the prestige game, the women's tour is now about to lose its only bona fide star.

Martina Navratilova, who might be the finest woman athlete in history, will hang up her Reeboks after the Virginia Slims Championships this weekend in New York. At age 38, the sport's brilliant revolutionary has finally slowed, and that fire in her belly has cooled a few degrees. When she's gone, Martina's floundering sport--known as much these days for child abuse as racket abuse--is bound to miss her more than it knows, and for reasons it may not understand.

All professional sports need larger-than-life champions--Babe Ruths and Michael Jordans--and Navratilova has been larger than most. She has won 167 singles titles--more than any other tennis pro. She beat Julie Heidman for the first one, in 1974, Julie Halard for the last, in 1994. Martina has nine Wimbledon championships in her trophy case: 4 U.S., 3 Australian and 2 French Opens. With partner Pam Shriver, she also won 79 doubles crowns, including 20 Grand Slam events. Over in the minutiae column, Denverites with good memories know that she won her fifth-ever singles title right here when she defeated Carrie Meyer in three sets on September 22, 1975.

At that time, of course, Martina Navratilova was anything but a beloved, first-name-basis heroine. Truth be told, U.S. tennis fans first saw her as a freak--a left-handed, horse-faced Czech teenager with scary muscles and the charm of a border guard. Her brutal serve-and-volley game and ambiguous sexuality further distanced her from the country-club crowd, and when she started pounding America's favorite daughter, Chris Evert, in tournaments from Houston to Filderstadt, she was cast as Lucrezia Borgia. In one stretch, Navratilova beat Evert thirteen times in a row, but Chrissie persevered. Their eighty-match rivalry--banger versus baseliner--became one of the greatest in sports. Evert has said Martina is all that kept her in the game so long. When Evert retired, Navratilova led the series just 43-37. They still practice together in Aspen.

As it happened, Martina had more than a serve and a volley. She had soul. She had to. In 1968 Russian tanks annihilated her homeland. Her father killed himself. When she joined the international circuit, the odious Czechoslovak Tennis Federation reined her in at every turn. So in 1975, at the tender age of eighteen, she defied the Czech bureaucrats (and the $11 a day they let her keep of her prize money) and defected to the United States. But for her bold example, Eastern Europeans agree, subsequent champions like Ivan Lendl, Hana Mandlikova and Helena Sukova might still be banging it around the concrete courts of Prague. And the world might never have loved her.

Money was never the issue. "I honestly believe I was born to be an American," Navratilova wrote in her 1985 biography. "With all due respect to my homeland, things never really felt right until the day I got off the plane in Florida...I wanted my freedom!"

Ironically, she could sometimes find that only on the tennis court. Bedeviled by questions about her personal life--sometimes by the choices she made in that life--she often found solace only in smashing Mr. Wilson. Her hairstyles, fashions and moods could change as fast as the weather, but her game steadily grew more powerful. In 1983, for instance, she won an incredible sixteen tournaments--including Wimbledon and the U.S. and Australian Opens. At the same time, she matured into a wise and thoughtful athlete.

"Are you still a lesbian?" a British reporter once demanded.
"Are you still the alternative?" she shot back. Game, set, match, Miss Navratilova.

Only last month, she had some interesting things to say about the O.J. Simpson case (to paraphrase: Differentiate between the golden hero and the bad husband) and the curse parents put on their kids by forcing them into sports at too young an age. As she made her final stops on the circuit this year, fans who once felt uncomfortable in her presence cheered her wildly, and the eulogies are stacking up like tournament checks. For her own part, Navratilova regrets only that she isn't playing her swan song in a richer key. "I can feel everybody wants me to win so badly," she said last week. "I'm the home team everywhere."

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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