There's nothing sweet in the sound of greatness going down. It echoes the wear of too many years, the realization that time has chipped away the best part of your talent until, one day, there isn't enough left. Until one Saturday in July, you are Martina Navratilova standing, for the 22nd consecutive year, on the patchy grass you love most, in the embrace of 13,118 people and Wimbledon's Centre Court. And you are grunting. The ball drops over the net, you run but have no chance and gasp "Eeeeungghh!" You rap a forehand crosscourt to draw even in one game and bark "Come on!" because, at 37, you need pushing. You break Conchita Martínez with a rare forehand pass, bellow "Yes!" and frame your face with your fists. You talk to the air. You lose.
Greatness rising? Sometimes, it makes no sound at all. There is no need. Body, mind and talent mesh noiselessly as if designed at MIT. Here is a Sunday in July, and you are Pete Sampras gliding upon a second straight devastating run through Wimbledon. Goran Ivanisevic has spoken all week about his new mental strength but in the third set you have made that a lie. You drill an ace and merely nod, with no surprise in your eyes, because, at 22, you stalk history. You stroke a soft voiley past him and turn away. He doesn't bother swinging. He seems ready to cry.
"He's just too good," Ivanisevic said afterward, over and over.
"In my book Pete Sampras is the best player after Rod Laver," said Ion Tiriac, Ivanisevic's manager and a tour fixture since 1959. "He's the most complete player in the world."
July 10, 1994
So it was that the 1994 Championships at Wimbledon, which began as an upset-fest and almost became a daily seminar or rules and on-court behavior, ended as a changing of the alltime guard. On Saturday the 22-year-old Martínez halted Navratilova's hope for a 10th Wimbledon singles title, continuing the new Spanish conquest by becoming the first woman from Spain to win tennis's premier tournament. While Navratilova twice double-faulted on break point in her final set of her final Wimbledon and kept netting her once flawless volley, Martínez burned one dazzling passing shot after another by the helpless legend to win 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
It was her first Grand Slam final, Wimbledon no less, but the implacable Martínez played as if an earthquake wouldn't disturb her. Only at the end, after she had flung her racket into the gray English sky and Navratilova had hugged her, did Martínez begin to know what she had done. "She was going lower and lower—I was holding her up," Navratilova said. "I remember how that first one felt. The first one is the best. It's such a pure feeling."
The second isn't bad, either. By becoming the first man since Boris Becker in 1985 and '86 to win back-to-back Wimbledons—and by nailing his fourth Grand Slam title in his last five attempts—Sampras cemented his stature as the preeminent men's player of his generation. Sampras has already opened the largest gap between No. 1 and No. 2 in the history of the ATP computer rankings, and he's only getting better. He dropped only one set in seven matches, and he lost his serve just three times. Against Ivanisevic, a Wimbledon finalist in 1992 and now the world's No. 2 player, he faced only two break points and saved both. After winning the first two sets in tiebreakers, Sampras raised his game further. He brilliantly dismantled Ivanisevic's biggest weapon—a serve clocked at 136 mph—in the third set's second game, and from there it was only minutes to a 6-0 beheading.
Sampras has long been motivated by the low-key examples of two Australian tennis legends, Laver and Ken Rosewall, and he has now reached that place that few athletes reach—he is within striking distance of his idols. "I'm getting closer," Sampras said. "I'm getting there. The Grand Slam wins I've had have proven to people and to myself that I can go down in the history books."
So it wasn't all that shocking to see Sampras treat Centre Court like an Aussie beer hall after Ivanisevic chipped wide on match point. Sampras flung a racket into the crowd, stripped off his shirt a la Agassi and tossed that in, and then threw in one more shirt. "I should've taken all my clothes oil," he said, "because I won two in a row."
The less-experienced Martínez approached her final-round appearance on Centre Court with a bit more decorum. "I was nervous," she said. "I was thinking, Oh, my god, what am I going to do? I have to make a curtsy there and a curtsy there. I was thinking, What if I don't do it well?"
The tennis was less a concern. Martínez, a Wimbledon semifinalist in '93, played as though she were born to grass. Growing up in Monzón, Spain, she practiced against a wall she named Martina. By the end of Saturday she had beaten the real one. "I was great the whole match," Martínez said—which is as good a way as any to announce that tennis has a new star.
Just in time, too. Navratilova's first march to a Grand Slam singles final since 1991 made for irresistible drama, but it also highlighted how shallow the women's game is beyond No. 1-ranked Steffi Graf. With Graf having been knocked out in the first round (SI, July 4), and with Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati at least temporarily out of the game, the women's draw opened up wider than the Chunnel. Navratilova wasn't seriously challenged until Gigi Fernandez gimped onto the court for their semifinal match. Ranked 99th and hampered by hamstring and quadriceps injuries—"I have no legs," she said—the 30-year-old Fernandez came to Wimbledon mulling retirement and pulling for her Aspen neighbor, Martina. In other words, not the stiffest competition Navratilova has ever faced.
"I don't really care," said Navratilova after struggling to a 6-4, 7-6 win. "I'm in the finals." By fortnight's end, that was all that mattered. It seemed only right that the greatest champion Wimbledon has ever known have a final run on the lawn. "This is what I wanted: to go out in style," said Navratilova.
With Princess Diana, singer k.d. lang and South African deputy president F.W. de Klerk all attending the women's final, she did. But her bond with Wimbledon goes deeper than royalty. "This court," Chris Evert once said, "is her court."
No other surface suits Navratilova's game as well as grass, and as the site of her first Grand Slam singles title, in 1978, no other tennis tournament ever evoked as pure an emotion. Once during the first week, Navratilova came to Centre Court after everyone had gone, "at night, with just the guard dogs." Just to see the place, alone, like some giddy, awed teen. Who better to remind us why this is the most revered place in tennis?
"I loved Wimbledon from the first time I knew about it," she said. "It's like a relationship where you love that person more and more. It gets deeper. And, you know, it's been reciprocated. I feel this place in my bones. I feel all those champions, dead and alive, when I'm out there. There's no place like it."
Yet before Navratilova's opening match, against Great Britain's Claire Taylor, there was no hint that this place could revive her game. After bombing out of the '94 French Open in the first round—and smashing a racket in disgust—she looked slow and nerveless in a quarterfinal loss to 39th-ranked Meredith McGrath at Eastbourne, a Wimbledon tune-up. "Everything is much slower," said Jana Novotna, last year's Wimbledon finalist, of Navratilova after that. "Her will is there, but the body just can't do it anymore."
However, Navratilova's coaches, Craig Kardon and Billie Jean King, kept telling her that once she got to Wimbledon, where she had won 18 titles overall, she would feel the old magic. They were right. The moment she walked onto Centre Court to face Taylor, the sun broke through for the first time all day. Walking off, she told Taylor, "Turn around. Enjoy it. This doesn't happen very often."
But it did. Navratilova rolled to another five wins and didn't lose a set until her first against Novotna. For the remainder of that match she played her best tennis of the tournament, and the result was a near blanking in the last two sets, 6-0, 6-1. "I wouldn't have predicted that," Navratilova said.
Then again, this wasn't a time to be predicting anything. Martínez began the tournament as a 33-to-1 shot. At the start of the fortnight, who would have bet on a woman who insisted she had been inspired by the king of Spain, even if two of his other subjects, Sergi Bruguera and Arantxa Sànchez Vicario, had just won the French Open? Who would have imagined that after two weeks, longtime Wimbledon darling Boris Becker would exit with a damaged reputation?
Of all active players only Becker could claim a bond with Centre Court similar to Navratilova's. Nine years ago, at the age of 17, the unseeded Becker dived onto the pastoral Wimbledon scene with all the subtlety of a hand grenade. His leaping volleys ended with him rolling on the grass like a dog smelling spring. Few champs have been more popular at the All England Club—until now.
Not since John McEnroe was booted from the 1990 Australian Open for unsportsmanlike conduct has a player drawn so much fire from the tennis community. Long considered one of the more enlightened members of the tour, Becker has never been described as Mac-like. Yet at Wimbledon he received a $1,000 fine for having his trainer stretch his leg during a toilet break in his third-round match against Javier Frana. Then, while up match point in the fifth set against Andrei Medvedev in the round of 16, Becker was accused of stalling as Medvedev prepared to serve. "If you're good enough, win without cheating," said Medvedev. McEnroe, of all people, called for Becker to be defaulted.
Becker's defense: He didn't know it was against the rules to take treatment during a break. He has tried to dictate the pace of matches since he began playing. "Maybe the main reason why they speak up is because they lost," Becker said of his accusers. "This is no small, little tournament, where we go to have some fun."
True, but Frana had a stronger argument. There have always been suspicions about the game's dual standards: One punishment for kings and another for hoi polloi, and Becker's fine seemed remarkably light for someone who should know, after a decade on the tour, what is allowed during a run to the toilet. "What would have happened if I had done that?" Frana said. "It's no big thing to disqualify me as opposed to those guys."
No other sport has so many laws for behavior so infrequently enforced. Receiving unauthorized treatment during a match is cheating. Becker should have been bounced.
Becker's sour Wimbledon exit was the flip side of Navratilova's teary final farewell. Someone yelled, "Come back next year, Martina!" but she shook her head no and blew a kiss. "It was so sweet," Navratilova said. "People feel what I feel, and it's nice that I can share that. I can bring people closer to Wimbledon through me. They can feel it, and that will continue when I'm not around."
She trod on tradition by circling the court—the first time anyone could remember a loser taking the champion's stroll—and the Centre Court crowd stood and saluted Navratilova with the day's best sound. At 4:20 p.m. she moved toward the door, curtsied, then broke off to collect a last few blades of grass. Seventy-five minutes later she walked out of the club entrance, climbed into a car and rolled slowly away. Two girls closed the black iron gates behind her.