Martina Navratilova's burden, it seems, is to struggle for appreciation. Last week, at the Avon championships in Madison Square Garden, before a limousine crowd that included the glittering people and every expense account from Wall Street to Madison Avenue, Navratilova played the sort of powerful tennis that has dominated the first quarter of the season, but wound up sharing billing with Chris Evert's wedding trousseau and Tracy Austin's latest shoe size. Once again Martina walked off with the prize money instead of the headlines, this time $100,000.
The championships concluded the 11-week Avon series and served to emphasize that when she is right, as she was winning 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 in the finals against Austin on Sunday, the 22-year-old Czech is devastating. Her twisting service at the beginning of the match had Austin as helpless as a butterfly pinned against cardboard.
Austin tried to keep the ball on Martina's backhand, which does not have the sting of her superb forehand, but it was a delaying tactic at best. Winning a set from her was an accomplishment; no one else did it last week, and Navratilova has lost only six others this season while taking five titles, 36 of 39 matches and $271,500 in cash.
Those statistics suggest invincibility, and the largest tennis crowd in the history of the women's game, a gathering of 13,752, turned out to see if Little Miss Placid, the 16-year-old Austin, could dent Navratilova. Except for brief moments, especially when rushed backhand approach shots scattered off her racket. Martina was in command, winning the first eight points of the match. She needed only 26 minutes to take the first set.
In effect Austin won the second set when she fired a backhand winner off a return of Navratilova's serve in the fourth game. It was the only break of a set in which Navratilova spent much of her time analyzing her ailing backhand. Instead of discarding the shot, she figured out that she was rushing it, and after giving away five break points in the second game of the third set, many off the backhand side, she settled down.
Austin's performance during the tournament suggested that her game is growing along with her body, a subject of acute interest; the press all but weighed her daily. But against Navratilova she committed a key mistake in the fourth game of the last set when she sailed a forehand wide to fall behind 3-1. From there, Navratilova went to work like someone who punches a time clock and who takes pride in her labor, "I'm tired of talking' about who's No. 1," she said afterward with a shrug. "I've won more tournaments and twice as much money, and people say it doesn't really count because Chris is getting married. In my mind I'm No. 1, and I know that if I keep playing the way I am now, nobody can take it away from me."
During most of the week, the tournament buzzed over the debacle suffered by Evert, who lost round-robin matches to Austin and Diane Fromholtz and gave the institution of marriage all kinds of sinister publicity. The back-to-back defeats were a first for Evert, indicating that she could not concentrate simultaneously on backhands and wedding invitations. She will marry British Davis Cup player John Lloyd on April 17.
Evert tired of the chatter, and after losing to Fromholtz Friday night, which eliminated her from the field, she declined to be interviewed, incurring an automatic fine from the tournament sponsors and the wrath of a New York press corps eager for gossip. Evert issued a statement accusing the press of not being "sensitive enough to my personal situation" and warned against premature talk of the weakening of reigns. Come summer—and nuptial bliss—she predicted she would be as much a threat as ever.
Little more than a year ago Evert ruled over tennis so completely that, bored, she took a four-month sabbatical. After returning she never really captured her former spirit, although she won the U.S. Open last fall. Now 24, she already has lost six matches this season—the number she might lose in a normal year—including first-time defeats by Sue Barker and Greer Stevens. Barker had failed to beat her in 15 previous matches. More important, since rejoining the tour Evert is 4-4 with Navratilova. Aside from the question of marriage, the reasons given for this state of affairs are that the rest of the women have improved, while Evert's weak points, her serve and net game, are about the same.
At any rate, the room at the top may be getting crowded, a feeling engendered by Austin during her dramatic victory over Evert on Thursday. While Tracy is a bit young to think seriously about marriage, her childhood is over. No longer is she the little girl in pigtails and pinafores. She's sweet 16, and a killer.
Last week, while the crowd looked on numbly, Austin whipped Evert 6-3, 6-1, winning 10 straight games at one splendid stretch and along the way casting Evert in the unfamiliar role of underdog. The bruised champion wound up exasperated, pained and searching for answers to a doleful performance that included 52 unforced errors.
The excuse of the impending marriage appeared a trifle too handy, since it ignored the fact that Evert had twice broken Austin's service and raced to a 3-0 lead to start the match. Evert looked very good, but in the stands Robert Landsdorp, Austin's coach, was not worried. Landsdorp and Tracy's mother Jeanne travel with their protègèe, and the coach could see that Evert was meeting a different opponent from the one beaten easily in their previous matches. Now, every time Evert punished a ground stroke, crowding Austin on the baseline, the ball came right back with something on it besides hope.
Amazingly, Austin is a prodigy who keeps skipping grades. She won her first three tournaments after turning professional, including the Avon final at Washington, where she defeated Navratilova in straight sets. But Evert still was an unanswered question, the last top player she had yet to beat. In their past matches, the 1977 Wimbledon, the Family Circle Cup and the U.S. Open last year, Evert was able to overpower her younger, smaller rival, although Austin continued to grow stronger, first winning two, then four, and finally six games.
Austin now wears gold earrings, a diamond-encrusted pendant and fingernail polish, and she is grown-up in other ways. She stands 5'4" and weighs 110 pounds; as the match against Evert progressed, even her shoulders seemed to widen. The players' groundstrokes appeared identical in power, so in the end it came down to who most wanted, and needed, to win. Evert was willing, but not nearly as much so as Austin. Chris tried everything—taking pace off the ball, hitting drop shots, coming to the net—and finally wound up trying too much. The stat sheet called them unforced errors, but Austin had a lot to do with it. "I still think I'm a better player than she is." Evert maintained afterward.
Evert sensed that the Austin match would not be the last of her tribulations. "I have a feeling that I'm going to have a few more losses than I've had in the past." she said. The next night she ran into Fromholtz, who kept hammering nails into the backhand corner for an easy 6-2, 6-3 victory. Evert managed only three break points against Fromholtz' twisting, lefthanded serve. In the second set, with the crowd imploring her to come back, Evert held serve to close to 3-2, but Fromholtz played a love game and ran out the match.
Navratilova, meanwhile, cruised on through to the semifinals on Saturday, whipping Greer Stevens and Virginia Wade in straight sets as her visiting 84-year-old Czechoslovakian grandmother, Andela Subertova, beamed in the stands. Handling her opponents proved an easy task, but a New York City cabdriver was more difficult. He raced off with two of her rackets Friday when she stopped at a grocery store. Someone asked if the thief might have been a Czech souvenir hunter. Impossible, answered Navratilova, "Czechs don't steal."
Equipped with new rackets flown in from her Dallas home, Navratilova played Sue Barker in the semis as if she had a meter of her own running and a plane to catch. She needed only 19 minutes to win the first set, 6-1, and took the second 6-3.
Austin had made 20 trips to New York City by the time she was 14, so she was not going to be fleeced by anyone, least of all a cabdriver, and judging from the improvement in her tennis game, it is going to be increasingly difficult to get the best of her on the court. Against Wendy Turnbull, in the tournament's opening round, she lost the first set, then "gutsed it out" to win the next two. In her semifinal match with Fromholtz, Austin fell behind 5-2, saved two set points, one of them with a luckily blocked volley, and went on to win 7-5, 6-2, leaving her opponent to puzzle about what happened to that frail little girl in braces and pinafores.
Just how much better Austin is going to get is grist for argument. A tennis player her age once said, "Too long a tennis career can ruin a girl and harden her. Tennis isn't the most important thing in my life." That was Chris Evert.
Another comment from the past sheds light on the journey ahead for Tracy Austin. "It's a terrific feeling being No. 4 and going up. You want to play them all, and you're loose. But she no longer belongs to herself; Chris Evert belongs to the public now." That was Billie Jean King talking about an emerging 16-year-old challenger to her supremacy.
Last week it was evident that Tracy Austin already belongs to the public—and that it would take some time and doing for Chris Evert to recapture its loudest plaudits. In the meantime, Martina Navratilova, almost unnoticed, just keeps right on winning, and winning, and winning.