Nothing is tough when you're No. 3," said Martina Navratilova on the eve of her match with Andrea Jaeger last week in the finals of the Avon Championships at Madison Square Garden.
In a roundabout way Navratilova was saying that getting to the top is easier than staying there, and she ought to know. After being ranked first in the world in 1978 and 79 and getting off to a good start last year, she slipped to No. 3 in the computer rankings, behind Chris Evert Lloyd and Tracy Austin. Navratilova won 10 tournaments in 1980 but played poorly in the grand slam events, the ones that matter.
Now, three months into 1981, she's still No. 3, but her play isn't the reason. In fact, she has been the runaway leader on the winter tour, but because Evert Lloyd and Austin have been out of action, Navratilova has been deprived of a chance to move up. Nonetheless, when she arrived in New York for the culmination of Avon's 10-week winter circuit, she was as relaxed and confident as she had been in a long time. She stayed at the quiet and very tony Hotel Carlyle on upper Madison Avenue, instead of at the Essex House in midtown where the other players found lodging, and she and her companion, novelist Rita Mae Brown, found time to see a Broadway show (Amadeus) and a movie (La Cage aux Folles II) during the early stages of the tournament. Navratilova lost only one set in three matches en route to the final, and she felt sure that if she continued to play as well as she had, she could handle Jaeger's dogged retrieving game. It had gotten the best of her in two of three meetings earlier in the year.
Navratilova's plan was to draw Jaeger to the net whenever she could with drop shots, and then pass her as Andrea scrambled back toward the baseline. The strategy worked. Jaeger played some inspired points and made some impressive saves, but Navratilova did everything right and won the $100,000 first prize 6-3, 7-6. At one point in the second set, as Jaeger was pounding along the baseline, pigtails flying, in pursuit of a shot she had no chance of reaching, she squealed in tribute, "Oh, you're so great." Then she giggled briefly and helplessly as she came to a halt.
Great is just what Navratilova had been in the weeks leading up to the championships. She had won four of the six Avon tournaments she'd entered and 24 of 26 matches. Those victories, which constituted both a triumphant comeback and an auspicious beginning to the season, would have been even more impressive had a few more of her peers been around. Evert Lloyd sat out the winter, emerging for only the final tour stop in Boston. She won there, but not without a final-round struggle with a flu-ridden Mima Jausovec. Scratch No. 1.
Austin has been suffering from an inflamed sciatic nerve in her lower back since January. After laying off for 6½ weeks, she thought she was ready to play in Seattle on Feb. 24. Then, the morning of the day the tournament began, she reconsidered. Scratch No. 2.
Wendy Turnbull didn't play well enough to qualify for the Madison Square Garden tournament. Scratch No. 6. Evonne Goolagong Cawley is pregnant again. Scratch No. 8. Dianne Fromholtz broke her foot and spent the winter at home in the Australian summer. Scratch No. 11. Billie Jean King, now 37, had another knee operation at the end of December. So much for No. 15.
Faced with a lackluster field, Avon had the right to bump the player with the fewest qualifying points and replace her with a better gate attraction. Austin was such a wild-card choice last year, and she not only enhanced the gate but also won the tournament. Avon felt it probably could have persuaded Evert Lloyd to play this year, but in the end chose not to meddle with its own point system. As a result, Navratilova and the 15-year-old Jaeger were hardly tested before the finals. But the crowds at the Garden did get a look at the four most improved players of 1981: Barbara Potter, Leslie Allen, Bettina Bunge and Sylvia Hanika.
Potter is a 19-year-old lefthander with a lethal serve who gave Austin all she could handle at Wimbledon last year. A preppy who graduated in the top 10% of her class at the Taft School in Watertown, Conn., she has been accepted at Princeton, but she says she chose the tour because "I better do what I can while the body's able." Potter broke into the top 20 for the first time just two months before the tournament. After winning a total of only seven games in two matches (the tournament is double elimination until the semis), she was philosophical: "Nobody said it was going to be the Garden of Eden."
Allen, 24, was the media sensation of the week, just as she has been every week since she won the Avon Championships of Detroit in early February. Allen has created a stir partly because she is the first black woman since Althea Gibson to win a tournament of any significance and partly because, as a graduate in communications from USC, she's able to conduct interviews with the aplomb of a head of state.
Allen upset Hana Mandlikova 7-5, 6-1 in the first round, which was a surprise to everyone except the players who have watched Allen perform this year. "She's one of the most underrated," says Jaeger. Allen then lost 6-3, 6-0 to Navratilova and 6-1, 6-3 to Bunge (pronounced Bung-ee).
Like Mandlikova, Bunge, 17, looks as though she was born knowing how to play tennis. A blue-eyed, sweet-faced blonde who formerly relied primarily on a baseline game, she's now developing into an effective all-court player, but she still lacks the consistency and strength to challenge human backboards like Austin and Jaeger. Bunge, who is Swiss by birth and German by citizenship, grew up in Peru and now lives in Coral Gables, Fla. Her father, Siegfried, is in the fish meal business. "I think it is something you feed to animals," she says.
After an initial loss to Jaeger, Bunge progressed to the semifinals, where she lost 6-2, 7-5 to Navratilova. The other losing semifinalist was Hanika. Both she and Bunge are members of the West German Federation Cup team, but Hanika, 21, is a 5'8" blue-eyed blonde of a different stripe. She is an attacker with a big lefthanded serve and an even bigger persecution complex. At the conclusion of her second-round loss to Jaeger, Hanika cursed at her in German. Jaeger, who understands German, ran into the dressing room in tears. Two days later, after Hanika had lost to Jaeger again, her seventh loss in seven meetings, she explained her feelings. "Always when you play her you get bad calls," Hanika said. "I like her very much off the court, but on the court she's not so nice. She always tries to influence the linesmen and the umpire."
Jaeger beat Hanika not with bad calls but with phenomenal patience. Their three-set semifinal match took 2½ hours, and Jaeger prevailed the way she usually does—by keeping the ball in play and waiting for errors. "I have no patience when I do anything else," she says. "Tennis is the only thing I've got it for. I go into a restaurant with my mom and I want to order and get out of there in two seconds. I don't even think I have patience in another sport. But I'm glad tennis is the only thing I have it in. I wouldn't want to sit around and be patient my whole life. It would be sort of boring."
If Mandlikova had been on form, she, instead of Bunge, probably would have met Navratilova in the other semi. But only occasionally in recent months has Mandlikova produced the brilliant shotmaking that carried her to the finals of last year's U.S. Open. She seems tired and dispirited, as if she needs sunshine and fresh air and a little more fun in her life. Some observers think her game has lost its spontaneity. Others believe her inconsistency merely reflects lack of experience on the quick Sport-eze carpet used during the indoor season. Mandlikova says she feels no pressure to win. "I am not yet No. 1," she says. "I am No. 5, so sometimes I can still lose."
Against Hanika she won the first set 6-1 and then lost the next two 6-1, 6-0, appearing much of the time as if she could not wait to get off the court. "I look like I give up always because my style is looking very easy," she said, "but I never give up. I try every point."
This week tennis moves out of the eternal night of converted basketball arenas into the sunshine where it belongs. Things will soon return to normal. Evert Lloyd and Austin will be back, and they, along with Navratilova, will be gearing for the French Open and Wimbledon. We will then see if the world's No. 3 player is indeed playing No. 1 tennis.