The applause in Madison Square Garden was a striking tribute to two careers headed in different directions. Martina Navratilova, at the age of 36, basked in the crowd's standing ovation, while next to her stood impatient Monica Seles, half that age, a fast-forward champion. Navratilova is the greatest women's player in history, but nobody else has won as many titles as Seles has at such an early age.
On Sunday she defeated Navratilova in their best-of-five-set title match at the season-ending Virginia Slims Championships 7-5, 6-3, 6-1, a win so quick and convincing that it caused Navratilova, for whom just reaching the final was a long, slow pull, to announce that next year will probably be her last as a singles player. The ovation Navratilova received was perhaps the longest and warmest of her 18-year career. "I know there arc not many more of these moments," she said tearfully, "and that's a little hard on the heart."
Countless ovations lie ahead for Seles, who has now won the Slims three years running. Her emphatic yearlong defense of her No. 1 ranking culminated in a scintillating final-round performance at the Garden, for which she received a benediction from Navratilova, the alltime leader in singles titles, men's or women's, with 161. "At her best, she's as good as anybody," said Navratilova.
Consider: Seles lost only five matches in 1992 and broke the record for prize money earned in a single year by a tennis player, with $2.6 million, including the $250,000 she won on Sunday and another $500,000 she took home for winning the Kraft Tour bonus pool. Since turning pro at 15 in 1989, Seles has amassed seven Grand Slam crowns and six of the last eight. In the last two years she reached the finals of 30 of the 31 tournaments she entered, winning 20 of them.
Still, Seles has not received her due. That may be because she doesn't look like a champion. Standing next to the supremely fit Navratilova, Seles resembles a couch potato. Then there is her hair, which, in its latest incarnation, is twisted into brown nubs better suited for the head of a giraffe. One of her accomplishments this year was to make People magazine's worst-dressed list. Last weekend she was the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit that mocked her trademark grunt.
"I'm different, I know," says Seles. "I don't look like a No. 1 player. People say to me, 'You don't look like an athlete. You look like a person.' "
Seles's unlikely build—she recently took up jogging to keep her odd pear shape in shape—and strange mannerisms are deceiving. "She's very beatable," said Gabriela Sabatini last week. Then how come people don't do it more often? In fact, Sabatini herself was sent packing by Seles in the semifinals 7-6, 6-1.
A distant second to Seles in 1992 was her chief rival, Steffi Graf, who prevailed at Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam event Seles didn't win. Going into the Slims championships, Graf had won four straight tournaments, but her year ended in a sudden puff of smoke when she fell 7-6, 6-4 to 18th-ranked Lori McNeil in the first round. Not since 1985 had Graf lost before the quarterfinals in a tournament. After the match she said that she would most likely go straight home to Germany. Instead she remained for three days in New York, where she recently bought a triplex apartment in the Soho district of Manhattan. Graf loves the fact that she can prowl Soho's art galleries unrecognized.
Navratilova was alternately loath and hasty to call next year her last, and she reserved the right to change her mind. Clearly, though, the end is nearing. Her broadening pursuits are pulling her away from tennis. "There are more-interesting things to talk about," she says.
There are also more-fun things to do. The week before the Slims, she went to a New York Ranger game at the Garden. Afterward she skidded on the ice in cowboy boots, borrowed a stick and took some slapshots at the goal. She even traded Ranger coach Roger Neilson a racket for a pair of hockey skates.
Throughout the tournament Navratilova was a walking paid political announcement. She lectured tirelessly on Colorado's Amendment 2, which repealed gay-rights legislation in that state. Amendment 2 has become the target of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, to which Navratilova has added her name as a plaintiff. A resident of Aspen, she has said she will move if the amendment is not found unconstitutional. Last week she was writing an opinion piece for USA Today on the Colorado controversy, and she has been outspoken on the right of gays and lesbians to serve in the military. "Wouldn't you want me on the front lines?" says Navratilova.
An avowed liberal, she says some form of public advocacy will be her next calling. "I'm for fairness and equality, and I'm against prejudice," she says. "So I guess that makes me a radical liberal to some."
Navratilova the tennis player has always been a finely tuned piece of machinery, and too often lately her mind has wandered or her body has complained. She employs a constant rotation of masseuses and chiropractors to cure small pains. "It's one thing or the other," she says. "When both the mind and the body go, then there will be no hope."
Navratilova can't close the door on opponents the way she once did. Witness Sunday's match. She served for the first set and made a diving forehand volley to take a 3-1 lead in the second, but Seles swept the next eight games. "She just hit it harder," said Navratilova incredulously.
The titles have slowed to a trickle. Navratilova finished the year by reaching four straight finals but won only one of them. Still, she plans a full schedule for next year and gets testy when others imply that this year may have been her last. "I'll be there," she says. "If you don't see me, it will be because you didn't show up."