Garden Party Readied For Martina Navratilova’s Last Tournament
NEW YORK (AP) _ They’re giving a going-away Garden party for Martina Navratilova and everybody’s invited. Or at least 15 of her nearest competitors and 19,000 of her closest friends.
″I just hope I can still pick up the racket and hit the ball over the net through all the emotion that I am sure I will be feeling,″ Navratilova said of her opening round match Tuesday in the season-ending and, for her, career- ending Virginia Slims Championships. ″Hopefully that won’t be the only day that I will be playing here.″
The week-long $3.5 million tournament begins Monday at Madison Square Garden where the top 16 singles players and top eight doubles teams of 1994 battle. The Slims Championships singles final is the only time during the year that women play a best-of-5 sets.
The highlight of the week will take place Tuesday when the world’s winningest player is honored. Half the expected sellout crowd - the first 10,000 fans to enter the arena - will receive a keepsake tennis ball inscribed with Navratilova’s signature and year of her retirement.
In a post-match tribute to the 38-year-old left-hander, a banner with her name will be raised to the Garden ceiling, where it will join the numbers that have been retired for the New York Knicks and New York Rangers.
Navratilova’s numbers are staggering. Since 1973, when she joined the pro tour, she has won a record 167 singles titles - more than any other man or woman - and a record 165 doubles crowns. That has boosted her career earnings to more than $20 million.
The Garden has been one of her most successful venues. Whether it’s sponsored by Virginia Slims or Avon, whether it’s played in March or in November, Navratilova has dominated this indoor event, winning seven singles and 11 doubles titles, and reaching the singles title match four other times.
″Playing in the Garden is a lot different than playing in the other indoor venues because the Garden is obviously very special, but it is also very big and open,″ said Craig Kardon, Navratilova’s coach. ″And the crowd is always a factor.
″It will be very interesting, I think, if she could put all her emotions aside as to this maybe being her last match or last week.″
Matching strokes and fragile emotions with Navratilova in the first-round battle will be Argentina’s Gabriela Sabatini, who won the Virginia Slims Championships in 1988 and the U.S. Open in 1990, but hasn’t won a tournament of any kind since May 1992.
Navratilova fell to sixth in the world rankings last week and risks finishing the year out of the top five for the first time since 1975. And unless she wins here, she will snap her streak of winning two or more singles titles each year since 1975. Her only victory this year came at the Paris indoors in February. Yet, in July she was a surprising finalist at Wimbledon - a tournament she has won a record nine times - and played perhaps her best tennis of the year last week when she lost to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the title match at the Bank of the West Classic in Oakland, Calif.
″I hadn’t played tennis like that in a long time,″ Navratilova said after her three-set loss to Sanchez Vicario. ″It’s nice to be able to play great tennis, I just wish I could finish it off. When I play tennis like this, I know I didn’t retire too late.″
While Sanchez Vicario will be seeded No. 2 in the Slims Championships - seedings are based on computer rankings - she has dominated women’s tennis this year, winning both the French and U.S. Opens and finishing second at the Australian Open.
Sanchez Vicario comes into the Garden riding a 21-match winning streak, having captured her last four tournaments. She will take on Julie Halard of France in the opening round.
The top seed is Steffi Graf, who has been plagued by injuries and has not played since losing in the U.S. Open final. Graf reportedly practiced in New York earlier this month, continued to have back pains, and consequently withdrew from this past week’s Virginia Slims of Philadelphia tournament. Her first-round opponent will be Brenda Schultz of the Netherlands.
Other first-round matches pit Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez against Natalia Zvereva, fourth-seeded Jana Novotna against Iva Majoli of Croatia, No. 5 Mary Pierce against South Africa’s Amanda Coetzer, No. 7 Lindsay Davenport against Germany’s Anke Huber, and No. 8 Kimiko Date of Japan against Bulgaria’s Magdalena Maleeva. Germany’s Sabine Hack is an alternate.
Despite what happens Tuesday, Navratilova will play at least twice in the tournament. She qualified for the doubles competition with Manon Bollegraf of the Netherlands.
Other doubles teams in the field are defending champions Gigi Fernandez and Zvereva, Novotna and Sanchez Vicario, Patty Fendick and Meredith McGrath, veterans Pam Shriver and Elizabeth Smylie, Davenport and Lisa Raymond, Halard and Nathalie Tauziat, and Jill Hetherington and Shaun Stafford.
″(Sometimes) I do think I’m playing one year too many,″ Navratilova said recently, ″but then I wouldn’t have had Wimbledon and I wouldn’t be here.″
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