Too good. That's the tennis phrase for the perfect placement, the ultimate performance, and right now Martina Navratilova, her mental cobwebs long cleared away, her body and soul as healthy as can be, has the women's game pinned to the mat. In every phase of tennis, she's simply too good.
At the Virginia Slims Championships in New York City last week, Navratilova demonstrated a talent as well rounded as it is splendid. She bludgeoned opponents with her serve, outdueled them from the baseline and teased them with drop shots and lobs. Even Chris Evert Lloyd could do little to slow down Navratilova. Going into the title match on Sunday, Navratilova had won 13 of their previous 18 meetings, but six of the last eight had gone three sets. This time the knockout came by a score of 6-2, 6-0. For the year Navratilova is unbeaten in 24 matches and five tournaments, and since the start of 1982, she has won 114 of 117 matches. The three losses were to Sylvia Hanika in last year's equivalent to the Slims, to Pam Shriver in the U.S. Open in September and to Evert Lloyd in the Australian Open in December. Last week Navratilova routed all three.
"Basically, she got lucky," said Shriver with a chuckle after losing 6-1, 6-2 in the quarterfinals. "She seems to be doing that a lot lately."
As Evert Lloyd got set to take the court against Navratilova, she sat in the dark and empty Felt Forum deep inside Madison Square Garden, sharing a contemplative moment with her husband, John. Upstairs, the main arena resounded to the beat of Let's Get Physical. The look in Evert Lloyd's eyes seemed to say, "If I don't make it back, tell Mom and Dad I love them." Little more than an hour later, Navratilova had swept 10 straight games en route to handing Evert Lloyd the worst loss of her career. "She really cleaned my clock today," said Evert Lloyd. "That was one of her better matches. I hope."
April 4, 1983
A hint of how the afternoon would go came early. With Team Navratilova, the squadron that handles everything from strategy to dessert for Martina, sitting jauntily at courtside, Navratilova threw in a drop shot on the first point. How's that for confidence? Time and again she disrupted Evert Lloyd's rhythm by luring her off the baseline with drops. Only once did Evert Lloyd retaliate with a winner; seven other times she either missed the return or it was picked off by Navratilova.
So complete was the destruction that one needed a flight recorder to document and interpret the wreckage, but in retrospect the fifth game was as pivotal as any. Evert Lloyd had triple break point, but her chances sailed away on an unforced forehand mistake, a bad service return and two solid backhands from Navratilova. "Basically, the match was over then," said Renee Richards, the engineer behind Navratilova's on-court mechanics. "That's got to tell you something about Martina's level of play. Chrissie doesn't win that game and she's out of the match."
Richards' X's and O's dictated that Navratilova keep the ball on Evert Lloyd's backhand because she doesn't relish hitting down the line with her two-hander, which she must do to reach Navratilova's backhand. As the match progressed. Evert Lloyd's cross-court shots ducked right into Navratilova's wheel-house forehand. Result: Navratilova made only nine unforced errors.
Still, Team Navratilova predicts its charge will get even better. When Robert Haas, the nutritionist of the group, was queried about the specifics of Navratilova's diet, Nancy Lieberman, who's in charge of her conditioning and psyche, interrupted and said, "The only red meat Martina eats is her opponents. And she's been devouring them lately. And you know what? She's not even in the shape she's going to be in for the French Open. Wait'll you see her. I promise a totally different Martina. It'll be unbelievable."
How will this be accomplished? "I can't tell you," replied Lieberman. "We don't share secrets."
Along with Richards, Lieberman and Haas, Team Navratilova includes Rick Elstein, a "reflex trainer" who works out of the Syosset Tennis Academy on Long Island. Presumably Elstein is working on Navratilova's blink time. Also part of the group is Pam Derderian, who, Lieberman insists, is her agent, although the other players on tour call her The Dogwalker because more often than not she can be found in the company of one of Navratilova's pooches. "If she's a dogwalker, she makes a hell of a lot of money for me," says Lieberman.
Lieberman's relentless fine-tuning and the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet Haas has put Navratilova on—part of a regimen he calls Smartina, which includes 39 different blood tests once a month—have produced results. The once pudgy Navratilova, who's now so lean and sinewy that the blood vessels in her limbs stand out in high relief, is quicker than she was last year and seems eager to sweat forever. But Richards' influence is important as well. For years Navratilova ran from pro to pro in an attempt to learn a topspin backhand. "Basically, taught her mine," says Richards. "Nancy pushes her to the point where Martina is in pain. By the time Martina comes to me, my job is a piece of cake."
Before the final, Ted Tinling, consultant to the women's tour and former sequin distributor to the stars, said, "I'm just hoping for good tennis. We need to keep the commodity in the marketplace." The commodity is in a fragile state. Already this year three women's tournaments have been canceled, and three of the best young players, Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger and Kathy Rinaldi, keep breaking down like fillies raced too young. Women's tennis has long suffered from a lack of depth, but with Austin and Jaeger struggling—past their peaks at 20 and 17, respectively?—the problem is worse than ever. So 39-year-old Billie Jean King reached the semifinals last week, only to lose 6-1, 6-1 to Evert Lloyd. Indeed, in her three matches preceding the final, Evert Lloyd dropped just 11 games altogether. After losing the first set in her opening match, against Hana Mandlikova, Navratilova lost all of eight games in four matches. Women's tennis needs reinforcements, fast.
Even though the Slims draw consisted of the top 15 players in the world, plus wild-card entry Evonne Goolagong, most everyone figured that the only person who could make Navratilova falter was Navratilova. In other words, she might take the apple in the Apple as she had done in 1982, when she blew a 6-1, 3-1 lead against Hanika in the finals. This year Hanika distinguished herself by playing her quarterfinal match against Austin in one of the ugliest outfits ever seen on a tennis court—a navy blue top with turquoise and pink trimming and matching navy blue short shorts that served to accentuate her powerful thighs. Against Navratilova in the semis, Hanika, who ranks No. 8 on the computer and is perhaps the only woman in the game who can stay with Navratilova in the bench press, switched to white but kept the hot pants. When someone asked her about the source of her strength, she answered, "Maybe it's the shorts."
Hanika said her strategy against Navratilova would be "to make power from baseline." With her heavy topspin off both sides, she figured to keep Navratilova away from a death watch at net. No charge for dreams. On Hanika's service games, Navratilova smugly hung back, waited for a shorty from short shorts, and then chipped and came in to net. On her own service, Navratilova was untouchable, giving up only two points in the first set. At 6-1, 3-1 she faced her only break point of the match. Well aware of what had happened to her at the same juncture a year ago, Navratilova threw in a "scroogie," a first serve, sliced wide, that Hanika barely touched.
"Then I knew it was all over," Navratilova said later. These days she's pretty matter-of-fact. "I'm surprised if I make an unforced error."
Meanwhile, Evert Lloyd had arrived in New York amid rumors that her marriage was disintegrating and that John had been prepared to file for divorce. But he was at all her matches, and they apparently have reached some sort of reconciliation. In any case, Evert Lloyd breezed through her half of the draw with one eye on Navratilova. This year Evert Lloyd has chased Navratilova—which King says "is great for tennis"—instead of waiting for the more comfortable clay-court season. While quick indoor carpet is hardly Evert Lloyd's favorite surface, she pointed out, "It's not like I'm terrible on it."
Evert Lloyd defeated Zina Garrison and Bettina Bunge before beating King in the semis. King divides her time between the Slims tour and over-30 events, and Evert Lloyd played as if she didn't want King confused about her whereabouts. In the locker room after the match, Rosie Casals told King, "You bring out the best in Chris."
"That's what I need to hear," said King.
King had provided a touch of warmth by throwing a couple of logs of nostalgia on the sputtering tournament fire. She beat two players, Jaeger and Barbara Potter, whose combined ages don't equal hers. With vitamins and exercises and boundless hustle, King comes across as a guru of fitness and dedication, a combination Jack LaLanne and Pete Rose. For King, the Slims was a subway series because she lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side. One night after playing singles and doubles she wound up eating at 2:30 a.m. in a neighborhood coffee shop. "Just two tramps and Billie Jean," said fellow pro Ilana Kloss.
In the opening round. King beat a lame Jaeger 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, closing the match by winning the final 16 points as the fans wondered what was up. In the final game Jaeger hit three straight double faults. Since taking a fall during an exhibition in February, Jaeger has been hampered by a sore right Achilles tendon and a sprained right ankle. And the anti-inflammatory drug used to treat those injuries has given Jaeger an upset stomach. But her ailments aren't all physical. Less than all-out efforts from her have become disconcertingly frequent. One indication that softness is setting in among the once hard-bitten Jaeger clan was the absence of Andrea's father, Roland, last week. He eschewed the Slims to stay home and train the family's Doberman puppy. King, however, would have no talk of injuries or tanking. "Any win is great at 39," she said.
Someone asked King, who's ranked 12th, if she entertained thoughts of climbing back to the top. "That's for the younger generation," she said with a smile. All in all, she appeared glad not to have to worry about Navratilova. Who could blame her?