Salvos At the Garden

Both Monica Seles and Martina Navratilova fired away in New York
December 02, 1991

What didn't top-ranked Monica Seles win this year in women's tennis? She won every Grand Slam tournament she entered. She won seven other titles, including the Virginia Slims championships at Madison Square Garden last week. She won $2.45 million, a record for earnings in a single season of women's tennis. About the only things Seles didn't win this year were many hearts or minds. Last week in New York City, anyway, those belonged to that noted 35-year-old political activist, Martina Navratilova.

If you wanted to talk tennis at the Garden, then you talked about Seles. She ran through the 16-player field at the $3 million Slims Championships like a laser. Indeed, in her three matches before Sunday's finals, she lost a total of eight games.

But if you wanted to talk about AIDS, Magic Johnson, role models, the environment or sexuality, then you turned to Navratilova, who also won a few matches, not to mention the adulation of the crowds, before falling to Seles in the best-of-five-set final. Even as Seles was rolling to a 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 6-0 victory, the ovations for Navratilova were thunderous. "People are finally taking me at face value," she said on Friday. "They're taking me for what's in my heart and my brain.

What had been on Navratilova's mind for much of the tournament was Magic's announcement that he was HIV-positive. On the second day of the tournament, she had told the New York Post that Johnson was not a hero for having contracted the AIDS virus, that his acknowledged promiscuity had been irresponsible behavior and that women and gays are treated with "a very big-time double standard" by the public and corporate America. She also said that if a woman athlete who had contracted the AIDS virus admitted that she "had been with 100 or 200 men, they'd call her a slut, and the corporations would drop her like a lead balloon."

When asked if she thought people would be understanding if she tested HIV-positive, Navratilova replied, "No. They'd say I'm gay—I had it coming."

Navratilova had mulled over her words for several days before deciding to address these issues publicly. Her decision was the outgrowth of a lot of thinking she has done over the course of the year as she has clawed her way through personal chaos. She is embroiled in a lengthy, multimillion-dollar lawsuit with former companion Judy Nelson, who claims she is owed half of what Navratilova earned during their seven-year relationship. Confronted by the end of her career and the potential diminution of her personal fortune, Navratilova decided that nothing else can harm her, particularly because her openly gay life-style had long ago cost her any endorsements much beyond the bare essentials: rackets, shoes, socks.

"How can it harm me," she said about her speaking out, "when I have hardly any endorsements anyway? Some people say I should keep quiet because of endorsements I might get someday. Well, I'm not getting them. If I feel strongly, I say it. I know I can do a lot more good by being vocal than by staying quiet. I'd have a whole lot more money if I lied, but I wouldn't enjoy spending it."

Here are some other tunes from Navratilova's Garden hit parade. On the widespread attention her remarks to the Post received: "I could have said that President Bush is a closet cross-dresser, and I wouldn't have gotten this much response." On being a role model: "You can't be doing drugs on the side, even if it doesn't affect your performance; you can't be drinking and driving. We are role models out there. I'm not perfect, but we all can do better." On the environment: "I recycle at home. I take a canvas bag to the grocery store. Everybody can make a little difference." On being gay: "There's a stigma that all gay people think about is sex, which is not the case, just as heterosexuals don't just think about sex all the time. We are all the same."

What could have been a season of personal wreckage for Navratilova ended as a rewarding one. She reached the finals of her last five tournaments, four of which featured riveting duels with Seles. She lost to Seles at the U.S. Open in September and in Milan in October but upset her two weeks ago in Oakland to tie Chris Evert's record for career singles titles, with 157. Seles, who at 18 is completing her third full year on tour, can barely contemplate Navratilova's career of nearly two decades. In fact, last week she wasn't even sure of Navratilova's age. "She's 35?" Seles said. "Really? Wow. It's hard to imagine, her and Chris Evert going to all those same airports for 17 years."

But in no way was Seles in awe of Navratilova once they took the court on Sunday. Seles's lacerating groundstrokes turned Navratilova's normally potent serve-and-volley game into a series of suicide lunges. She passed Navratilova 28 times in the match and lost only 10 points in the final set—despite claims afterward that she was fatigued.

No player, however, needs rest more than Steffi Graf, who was upset in New York by eighth-ranked Jana Novotna. At 22, Graf is struggling to come to terms with a fraying limb and sagging confidence. Her 1991 Wimbledon title notwithstanding, Graf could not take much pleasure from a year that included the loss of the No. 1 ranking to Seles after a record 186 straight weeks at the top, a torn shoulder tendon, nagging tendinitis in her arm and, most recently, a parting with her coach of five years, Pavel Slozil. "I need some new impulses in my tennis," she said after the Novotna match.

Seles, too, is contemplating some changes, like losing some of the 12 pounds she put on this year. She said she will improve her diet and start a new gym regimen. "Hopefully you'll see some muscle," she said. "Right now it's just fat." As for her on-court goals, Seles said her primary one will be "to win the one tournament [Wimbledon] I haven't."

Seles also appears to be making some concessions in her public demeanor. Her 1991 accomplishments were tainted by her mysterious withdrawal from Wimbledon and the confusion that ensued when she would not explain the reason until more than a week after the tournament had ended. As it turned out, she had been suffering from shin splints and a stress fracture in her left leg. A Madonna fan and aspiring actress, Seles seemed to seek publicity and enjoy the desperately-seeking-Susan quality of the Wimbledon affair. Last week, however, she said, "I don't want to be Madonna; I don't want to be larger than life; I just want to be myself."

Seles acknowledged that she had learned a lot this year. She learned she could win a second Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, to go with last year's breakthrough at the French Open. And she learned she could successfully defend a title, as she did in Paris. The harder lesson came when public sentiment turned against her. "I learned when you are Number One, how much weight your words have," she said. "People misunderstood me. You learn that you can never be smart enough. And you can't just blurt words out."

Unless, like Navratilova, you know how and when to blurt them.

PHOTOMANNY MILLANSeles blasted her way to the Slims title with a relentless ground attack. TWO PHOTOSMANNY MILLANNavratilova, whose candid remarks on a variety of subjects overshadowed her tennis, received a lengthy ovation after losing to Seles.