Leading 5-3, 30-0 in the first set of her semifinal match of the Virginia Slims Championships last Saturday at Madison Square Garden, Hana Mandlikova appeared to be only two lissome service motions and some continued artistry away from wrenching herself—and perhaps the collective psyche of women's tennis—from years of domination by Martina Navratilova. The two natives of Prague had last met in early March, when Mandlikova shocked Navratilova 7-6, 6-0—that's love—at the U.S. Indoors in Princeton, N.J. It was Navratilova's third defeat in less than four months. Considering that Navratilova had been beaten only once in the preceding 18 months—a span in which she had won 74 matches in a row—it wasn't surprising that her victims were wondering aloud whether, at 28, Navratilova was beginning to slip.
When she decided she needed eyeglasses after her debacle in Princeton, it reinforced the notion that age was sneaking up on her. The rimless lenses made her look vulnerable, which indeed she was at times in her semifinal at the Garden. The gifted Mandlikova bolted out of the gate by breaking Navratilova's serve three times in the first set.
But rather than seize up, Navratilova simply seized the moment to deliver the message: "You've come a long way, baby, but not quite far enough." Navratilova won four straight points—the second of which came on a double fault—to break service. She then swept the next three games for the set, but not before fighting off a set point at 4-5 with a gutsy drop volley.
Mandlikova rode the crest of what Ted Tinling calls her "careless rapture" in the second set, but Navratilova's thigh-slapping resolve carried her to a 7-5, 7-6 victory. Navratilova's 9-7 advantage in the tiebreaker, in which Mandlikova held another set point, completed 1 hour and 39 minutes of some of the finest shotmaking ever seen in women's tennis. Mandlikova hit 44 outright winners—the most dazzling of which were returns of Martina's powerful serves—to Navratilova's 27. But while Mandlikova committed 14 unforced errors, the champion finished with only four.
By the time Navratilova faced 20-year-old Helena Sukova in the best-of-five-set final, she looked so strong that the smart New York money bet the ova' and unda'. Navratilova breezed, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4. "She was too good for me," said Sukova, who had just one break point, which she failed to convert. "What else I can say."
Nothing really. Obviously reports of Navratilova's demise were greatly exaggerated. "It's very premature to say the gap between Martina and the field is closing," said veteran Barbara Potter, an astute Navratilova watcher. "I think she might have lost a little desire after winning the U.S. Open last year, but all this talk has given her some new challenges. God knows she thrives on challenges."
If anything, the mental energy expended during the 74-match streak would seem to explain Navratilova's recent patchiness. After she lost to Sukova in the Australian Open in December, a defeat that cost her the traditional, or calendar, Grand Slam, Navratilova seemed almost relieved. She opened 1985 by winning the Slims of Washington but then lost 6-2, 6-4 in Florida to Chris Evert Lloyd in a match the winner called the best she had ever played. Navratilova avenged that defeat at the Lipton International in February, but then came the second-set whitewash against Mandlikova, which took only 18 minutes. "I just gave up mentally," says Navratilova, "and I promised myself that would never, ever happen again."
Besides doing some soul-searching after Princeton, Navratilova decided problems with her vision required a checkup. At an optometry center near her home in Fort Worth—no, she didn't visit that renowned Manhattan ophthalmologist (and her former coach) Renee Richards—Navratilova discovered that the sight in both her eyes had deteriorated from an excellent 20/15 to a slightly nearsighted 20/40. After picking out some sleek oversize frames, she won five matches with the loss of only a set at the Slims of Dallas, where she again beat Evert Lloyd.
Navratilova's improved sight has been a morale booster. During a practice session last week with her current coach, Mike Estep, Navratilova missed a volley and quickly realized that she had forgotten to don her new specs. After retrieving them, she warned, "Now I am really going to kick ass." Still, the Garden crowds seemed primed for a new champion. Even several of the celebrities who attended the matches, including Yoko Ono, John Oates and Geraldine Ferraro, have made their marks as distinguished No. 2s. However, it was perhaps the most famous No. 2 in the world, Evert Lloyd, who became a first-round casualty. In losing 6-2, 1-6, 6-2 to Kathy Jordan, Evert Lloyd made 27 unforced errors, 23 off her vaunted two-handed backhand. Oddly, many of Evert Lloyd's mistakes came when she seemed to weary of long baseline exchanges with Jordan's samurai-sliced backhand.
Afterward, Evert Lloyd noted, almost wistfully, "Kathy really got psyched up for this match, but then they all do when they play me." Said Tinling, "It was as badly as Chris can possibly play. And she seemed like she didn't mind it too much. Very, very strange." Even stranger was Jordan's inability to win more than four games in her next match against an Evert Lloyd clone, Kathy Rinaldi, whose greatest claim to fame after four years on the tour remains being the youngest player (14 years, four months) ever to turn pro.
Meanwhile, Navratilova cruised past 19-year-old Lisa Bonder in the first round so convincingly that Bonder started to walk off the court trailing 6-1, 5-1, 40-15. "The points were over so quickly, I just lost track," she said. Navratilova set her straight with a service winner on the subsequent point. Her doubles partner, Pam Shriver, fell next in a match that featured more clowning than drama.
Navratilova would share no laughter with the stern Mandlikova, who has beaten her five times in 18 matches and is now ranked third in the world. Although the pair have smoothed over some hurt feelings that arose at Wimbledon last summer, when Mandlikova was overly brash in assessing her chances against Navratilova, their rivalry once again seemed to carry into the press room after the match. Mandlikova told reporters that Navratilova "was luckier today—not a better player—just luckier."
Luckier? That sounds like a shortsighted view.